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EEOC's Authority to Investigate Extends Even After Charge Withdrawn

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February 5, 2009

The Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals recently held that a charging party's attempt to withdraw his Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") Charge of Discrimination did not end the EEOC's authority to investigate because its powers are independent of any resolution between the parties and it may substitute itself as the charging party in order to proceed.

In EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc., the employer rejected the charging party's application because of his prior criminal convictions and its policy to not hire anyone convicted of a violent crime. The charging party subsequently filed a charge with the EEOC, which began investigating whether the policy had a disparate impact on minority applicants and issued a subpoena seeking information related to the policy. Thereafter, the charging party settled with the employer -- contingent on dismissing his charge -- but the EEOC refused to allow him to withdraw it and attempted to enforce the subpoena.  The district court concluded that the EEOC should have allowed the employee to dismiss his charge and that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to enforce the subpoena absent a valid charge. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed and held that a charging party's change of mind does not preclude the EEOC from continuing an investigation, reasoning that the purpose of Title VII will be defeated if the settlement of single applicant's claim wiped out a pattern-or-practice investigation.

This decision puts employers on notice that the EEOC has authority to continue its investigation of a Charge even after the parties have agreed to settle the Charge and the employee requests that the EEOC withdraw it.

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