General Telephone Company of the Northwest, Inc v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Decision Date12 May 1980
Docket NumberNo. 79-488,79-488
Citation64 L.Ed.2d 319,446 U.S. 318,100 S.Ct. 1698
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Section 706(a) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 empowers the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) "to prevent any person from engaging in any unlawful practice" as set forth in Title VII. Section 706(f)(1) authorizes the EEOC, after unlawful employment practice charges against a private employer are filed with it and it is unable to secure a conciliation agreement, to bring a civil action against the employer. And § 706(g), in addition to providing for injunctive relief, provides for reinstatement or hiring of aggrieved employees with or without backpay. On the basis of sex discrimination charges filed by four employees of petitioner employer, the EEOC brought suit in Federal District Court under § 706(f)(1), alleging discrimination against female employees in four States and seeking injunctive relief and backpay for the women affected by the challenged practices. The EEOC did not seek class certification pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, and petitioner employer moved to dismiss the class action aspects of the complaint. The District Court denied the motion and the Court of Appeals, on interlocutory appealed, affirmed.

Held : The EEOC may seek classwide relief under § 706(f)(1) without being certified as the class representative under Rule 23. Pp. 323-325.

(a) The language of §§ 706(a), (f)(1), and (g) clearly authorizes the procedure that the EEOC followed in this case. Pp. 323-325.

(b) This understanding of the statute is supported by the purpose of the 1972 amendments to Title VII of securing more effective enforcement of Title VII by adding § 706(f)(1) to authorize a civil enforcement suit by the EEOC as a supplement to the pre-existing private action. Under § 706(f)(1), Congress sought to implement the public interest as well as to bring about more effective enforcement of private rights. The private action rights under § 706(f)(1) suggest that the EEOC is not merely a proxy for the victims of discrimination and that the EEOC's enforcement suits should not be considered representative actions subject to Rule 23. When the EEOC acts, albeit at the behest of and for the benefit of specific individuals, it acts also to vindicate the public interest in preventing employment discrimination. Pp. 325-326.

(c) Prior to 1972, the only civil actions authorized other than private lawsuits were actions by the Attorney General upon reasonable cause to suspect "a pattern or practice" of discrimination, and such actions were brought in the name of the United States- not as a representative of the persons aggrieved- without obtaining certification under Rule 23 even though specific relief was awarded to individuals not parties to the suit. The 1972 amendments transferred the Attorney General's authority to bring "pattern or practice" suits to the EEOC, and Congress intended the EEOC to proceed in the same manner. Pp. 327-329.

(d) Forcing EEOC civil actions into the Rule 23 model would in many cases distort the Rule as it is commonly interpreted and in others foreclose enforcement actions not satisfying prevailing Rule 23 standards as to numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation but seemingly authorized by § 706(f)(1). The undesirability of doing either supports the conclusion that the procedural requirements of the Rule do not apply. Pp. 329-331.

(e) Departure from the statutory design is not warranted on the theory that Rule 23 should be invoked in order to secure a judgment in the EEOC's suit that will be binding upon all individuals with similar grievances in the class or subclasses that might be certified. It would not be consistent with the remedial purpose of the statutes to bind all "class" members with discrimination grievances against an employer by the relief obtained under an EEOC judgment or settlement against the employer, especially in view of the possible differences between the public and private interests involved. However, the courts are not powerless to prevent undue hardship to the defendant, and where the EEOC has prevailed in its action, the court may reasonably require any individual who claims under its judgment to relinquish his right to bring a separate private action. Pp. 332-333.

599 F.2d 322, affirmed.

Lawrence G. Wallace, Washington, D.C., for respondents.

James R. Dickens, Seattle, Wash., for petitioners.

Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue in this case is whether the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) may seek classwide relief under § 706(f)(1) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) without being certified as the class representative under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that certification was not required. 599 F.2d 322 (1979). Because this is a recurring issue on which the federal courts are divided,1 we granted certiorari, 444 U.S. 989, 100 S.Ct. 518, 62 L.Ed.2d 418 (1979). We affirm the judgment.


Four employees of General Telephone Company of the Northwest, Inc. (General Telephone), filed charges with the EEOC complaining of sex discrimination in employment. After investigation, the EEOC found reasonable cause to suspect discrimination against women, and in April 1977 brought suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington under § 706(f)(1) of Title VII, as amended, § 4, 86 Stat. 105, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5 (f)(1).2 The EEOC named as defendants General Telephone and its subsidiary, West Coast Telephone Company of California, Inc. (hereinafter collectively referred to as General Telephone), as well as the certified bargaining agent, Local Union No. 89, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The complaint alleged discrimination against female employees in General Telephone's facilities in the States of California, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon, in the form of restrictions on maternity leave, access to craft jobs, and promotion to managerial positions; it sought injunctive relief and backpay for the women affected by the challenged practices.

The complaint did not mention Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23,3 and the EEOC did not seek class certification pur- suant to that Rule. In August 1977, the EEOC moved pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42(b) "for an order bifurcating the issue of class liability from the issue of individual damages." The District Court referred the motion to a Magistrate, see Title VII, § 706(f)(5), and General Telephone moved "for an order dismissing the class action aspects" of the complaint.4

The Magistrate concluded that the EEOC was not required to comply with Rule 23 and recommended that the motion be denied. The District Court adopted the recommendation, denied the motion to dismiss, and then certified the issue for interlocutory appeal to the Ninth Circuit. The Court of Appeals accepted the appeal, see 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), and affirmed the District Court's ruling.


We agree with the Court of Appeals that Rule 23 is not applicable to an enforcement action brought by the EEOC in its own name and pursuant to its authority under § 706 to prevent unlawful employment practices.5 We rely on the language of Title VII, the legislative intent underlying the 1972 amendments to Title VII, and the enforcement procedures under Title VII prior to the amendments.

Title VII protects all employees of and applicants for employment with a covered employer, employment agency, labor organization, or training program against discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Section 706(a) empowers the EEOC "to prevent any person from engaging in any unlawful . . . practice" as set forth in the Title. Sec- tion 706(f)(1) specifically authorizes the EEOC to bring a civil action against any respondent not a governmental entity upon failure to secure an acceptable conciliation agreement,6 the purpose of the action being to terminate unlawful practices and to secure appropriate relief, including "reinstatement or hiring . . . , with or without back pay," for the victims of the discrimination. See § 706(g).

Title VII thus itself authorizes the procedure that the EEOC followed in this case. Upon finding reasonable cause to believe that General Telephone had discriminated against female employees, the EEOC filed suit seeking a permanent injunction against the discriminatory practices, remedial action to eradicate the effect of past discrimination, and "make whole" backpay, with interest, for persons adversely affected by the unlawful practices. Given the clear purpose of Title VII, the EEOC's jurisdiction over enforcement, and the remedies available, the EEOC need look no further than § 706 for its authority to bring suit in its own name for the purpose, among others, of securing relief for a group of aggrieved individuals. Its authority to bring such actions is in no way dependent upon Rule 23, and the Rule has no application to a § 706 suit.

Of course, Title VII defendants do not welcome the prospect of backpay liability; but the law provides for such liability and the EEOC's authority to sue for it. Moreover, the EEOC here requested relief only on behalf of "those persons adversely affected" and "in an amount to be proved at trial." App. 11. There is no claim or suggestion of unjustified, windfall backpay awards. That backpay relief is authorized is no basis for imposing the Rule 23 framework in an EEOC enforcement action. We do no more than follow a straightforward reading of the statute, which seems to us to authorize the EEOC to sue in its own name to enforce federal law by obtaining appropriate relief for those persons injured by discriminatory practices forbidden by the Act....

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