Choate v. Caterpillar Tractor Company

Decision Date17 October 1968
Docket NumberNo. 16700.,16700.
Citation402 F.2d 357
PartiesLynda L. CHOATE, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CATERPILLAR TRACTOR COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

James L. Hafele, Peoria, Ill., for plaintiff-appellant.

Homer W. Keller, Peoria, Ill., for defendant-appellee; Miller, Westervelt & Johnson, Peoria, Ill., of counsel.

Before MAJOR, Senior Circuit Judge, and SWYGERT and FAIRCHILD, Circuit Judges.

SWYGERT, Circuit Judge.

In this appeal we are asked to interpret section 706 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5, which relates to the enforcement of the equal employment opportunities provisions of Title VII of the Act.1

Plaintiff, Lynda L. Choate, appeals from an order of the district court dismissing her claim for relief based on an alleged unlawful employment practice within the meaning of section 703(a) (1) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a) (1).2

In her complaint, the plaintiff in substance alleged that on February 22, 1966 she applied to the defendant, Caterpillar Tractor Company, for factory work and was told that "she would not be given a job for the reason that as long as men were available for beginning factory jobs, men would be hired to the exclusion of women;" that about March 14, 1966 she filed a "written complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in Washington, D. C.;" and that on October 5, 1966 the Commission wrote her that "there was reasonable cause to believe that a violation of the Act had occurred." The plaintiff further alleged that, in compliance with the statute, she filed her complaint in the district court within thirty days "after having been notified of her right to do so by the * * * Commission;" that she had been discriminated against and denied employment as a result of her sex in violation of the provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a) (1); and that her prospective employer intentionally engaged in an unlawful employment practice within the meaning of the Act. The plaintiff requested that Caterpillar be enjoined from engaging in such unlawful employment practices, that it be ordered to hire her with back pay, and that she be awarded a reasonable attorney's fee.

The defendant moved to dismiss the complaint because it failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Specifically, the motion challenged the sufficiency of the complaint on the grounds, among others, that there were no allegations that the charge filed with the Commission was "under oath" as required by section 706(a) of the Act or that the plaintiff received from the Commission notice as prescribed in section 706(e) that it had been "unable to obtain voluntary compliance" by Caterpillar, and that, in any event, the action was barred by reason of the time limitations contained in the statute.

The district court granted the motion to dismiss, holding that "resort to the remedy of conciliation is a jurisdictional prerequisite to the right to file a civil action" and that "the filing of a verified charge with the Commission is necessary to invoke the statutory enforcement procedures." After reaching that determination, the court did not rule upon the other contentions made by the defendant with respect to the sufficiency of the complaint.3

Subsequent to the court's ruling, the plaintiff moved for leave to file an amended complaint for the purpose of eliminating the defects raised by the motions to dismiss. The tendered amended complaint alleged that about June 27, 1966 the plaintiff was contacted by the Commission at which time she "swore under oath that the contents of her complaint filed on March 14, 1966 were true." The district court denied leave to file the amended complaint, stating that the allegations of the proposed amendment "now * * * make clear that the alleged violation was not `charged in writing under oath' * * * as specifically required by statute."

We are of the view that the district court was in error in holding that its jurisdiction to entertain the suit depended upon whether the charge of discrimination filed with the Commission was under oath. Basic to our view is the fact that the "under oath" requirement relates to the administrative procedures which are conducted by the Commission and which precede any court action. The statute gives the Commission no enforcement powers through the adjudicatory process. It allows the Commission only to investigate charges and attempt to gain compliance by informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion. Enforcement of the rights of aggrieved parties resides exclusively in the federal courts. When the statute is thus considered, it is clear that the requirement for verification of charges lodged with the Commission relates solely to the administrative rather than to the judicial features of the statute. We believe that the provision is directory and technical rather than mandatory and substantive.

The requirement that a complainant must invoke the administrative process within the time limitations set forth in section 706(d) is a jurisdictional precondition to the commencement of a court action. A close reading of the statute indicates that there are only two additional jurisdictional prerequisites for such commencement: first, a notification to the aggrieved party by the Commission that it has been unable to obtain voluntary compliance and, second, the action must be filed within thirty days after the notification.

Given the fact that the administrative remedy alone may be insufficient to vindicate the rights of aggrieved parties, we believe that it would be unnecessarily harsh and in derogation of the interests of those whom the Act was designed to protect to interpret the statutory language as denying substantive rights in the district court because of procedural defects before the Commission. If the Commission undertakes to process a charge which is not "under oath," we perceive no reason why the district court should not treat the omission of the oath as a permissive waiver by the Commission. To deny relief under these circumstances would be a meaningless triumph of form over substance.4

Our holding is further supported by the Commission's present regulation which allows aggrieved parties to amend their complaints "to cure technical defects or omissions, including failure to swear to the charge * * *" 29 C.F.R. § 1601.11 (1968). Despite the fact that it was adopted by the Commission after the filing of the instant charge, the regulation nonetheless manifests the Commission's position with regard to the "under oath" requirement. Thus the Commission, by virtue of its rulemaking power, has determined (under facts similar to those in the case at bar) that it will not refuse to accept a charge merely because of a technical defect and that such defect may be corrected by amendment which relates back to the original filing date. It follows that the Commission does not consider the absence of an oath as constituting a jurisdictional defect depriving it of the power to act.

An additional comment is in order. It is difficult to imagine how the absence of an oath at the time the original charge was filed could have injured Caterpillar. If plaintiff's charge had been frivolous, it is unlikely that the Commission would have found reasonable cause to believe a violation had occurred. Since Caterpillar could not have been harmed by the omission under these circumstances, it has little cause to complain.

Caterpillar maintains that plaintiff's action was properly dismissed for the additional reason that she failed to allege in her complaint compliance by the Commission with its duty of seeking conciliation between the parties. Such action by the Commission, it is argued, is a jurisdictional prerequisite to the right to institute a civil suit under the Act. Caterpillar contends that more than the mere opportunity for the Commission to seek compliance must be alleged by the complainant, that is, the complainant must aver that the Commission has endeavored to eliminate the alleged unlawful employment practice by "conference, conciliation, or persuasion" as required by the Act.

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    ...the Commission with direct powers of enforcement. Since enforcement lies exclusively in the federal courts, Choate v. Caterpillar Tractor Co., 402 F.2d 357, 359 (C.A.7, 1968), the rights of a private party, therefore, must not be barred by procedural technicalities if Title VII is to operat......
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