The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) enforces federal laws prohibiting workplace discrimination. The EEOC was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The employment section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, known as Title VII, prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, and 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 1960s 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. Following President Kennedy's assassination in November, 1963, President Johnson continued to support the legislation, saying that “no eulogy could more eloquently honor Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.” Finally, and after much compromise, President Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2, 1964.
From 1965 through 1971, the EEOC lacked any real enforcement authority. Instead, Congress authorized the Agency to investigate claims of discrimination. If the EEOC found reasonable cause to believe that discrimination occurred, the Agency referred the case to the Department of Justice to litigate. Regardless, during this period the agency significantly impacted 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 done. Additionally, the agency assisted individual plaintiffs through its amicus curiae program by filing “friend of the court” briefs interpreting the law.
In 1972, Congressed 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 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). 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. Id. at 802. There, the plaintiff proved that 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. Id. 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. Id. Absent this showing, the employer is guilty of workplace discrimination. Id. 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 federal statutes prohibiting discrimination in employment are:
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin;
- the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA), which protects men and women who perform substantially equal work in the same establishment from sex-based wage discrimination;
- the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), which protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older;
- Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 ( ADA), which prohibit employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in the private sector, and in state and local governments;
- Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibit discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities who work in the federal government; and
- the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which, among other things, provides monetary damages in cases of intentional employment discrimination.
The Agency 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 that their employers have discriminated against them. The EEOC investigates those charges and issue findings based on its investigations. In some cases, if the EEOC finds that there is probable cause to believe discrimination has occurred, it may choose to bring an enforcement action against the employer. However, in the majority of the 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 prior to 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.