The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces federal laws prohibiting workplace discrimination. The EEOC was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The employment section of the act, known as Title VII, prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex or religion and also prohibits employers from retaliating against any employee who exercises his or her rights under Title VII.
Today, the EEOC enforces federal anti-discrimination statutes and provides oversight and coordination of all federal equal-opportunity regulations, policies and practices. The civil rights movement of the early ’60s peaked in the spring and summer of 1963. On June 19, 1963, President John F. Kennedy sent comprehensive civil rights legislation to Congress, asking it to “make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law.”
However, there was stiff political and social opposition to the legislation. After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, President Lyndon Johnson continued to support the legislation. He signed into law the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964.
From 1965 to 1971, the EEOC lacked any real enforcement authority. Instead, Congress authorized it to investigate claims of discrimination. If the EEOC found reasonable cause to believe discrimination occurred, it referred the case to the Justice Department to litigate. Regardless, during this period, the agency had a significant impact on the scope of future civil rights enforcement. The EEOC documented the nature and extent of discriminatory practices in employment, the first study of this kind. Additionally, it assisted individual plaintiffs through its amicus curiae program by filing “friend of the court” briefs interpreting the law.
In 1972, Congress passed the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, which amended Title VII to give the EEOC authority to conduct its own enforcement litigation. The EEOC strongly influenced the judicial interpretation of civil rights legislation. The agency’s advocacy defined “discrimination,” a term excluded from the 1964 act. In 1973, EEOC advocates pursued litigation leading to the country’s most often cited anti-discrimination Supreme Court opinion, McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green. In that case, the Court held that a plaintiff could prove an individual case of intentional discrimination, or disparate treatment, under Title VII by showing four factors. The plaintiff proved he was indirectly discriminated against in a hiring case by showing that (1) he was a member of a Title VII protected group, (2) he applied and was qualified for the position sought, (3) the employer rejected the plaintiff for the job and (4) the employer continued to seek applicants with similar qualifications after the rejection.The Court determined that once a plaintiff succeeded in making this bare showing of a prima facie case, the employer must articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for refusing to hire the plaintiff. Absent this showing, the employer is guilty of workplace discrimination. Courts and the EEOC apply this analytical framework to cases brought under all federal anti-discrimination statutes.
Today, the EEOC conducts enforcement litigation under several federal statutes that prohibit job discrimination.
The EEOC investigates charges of discrimination and, in some cases, brings civil suits based on charges of discrimination. Charges of discrimination are most often filed by private individuals (complainants) who believe their employers have discriminated against them. The EEOC issues findings based on its investigations. In some cases, if the EEOC finds probable cause to believe discrimination has occurred, it may bring an enforcement action against the employer. However, in the majority of cases, the complainant will independently initiate and pursue any litigation based on Title VII. Any individual who wishes to file suit under Title VII or the ADA is required to exhaust his or her administrative remedies before suing the employer in court. In other words, the complainant must first file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC before it may seek judicial remedy.
Last updated: Nov. 5, 2008
The content on this page was developed in partnership with the Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School.
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