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EEOC Is Limited in Ability to Sue Employer for Job Bias in Arbitration Case Argued Before High Court

  • October 15, 2001

An arbitration agreement between Waffle House, Inc. and an employee claiming disability discrimination bars the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from going to court on behalf of the employee and seeking money damages and other individual remedies. Jackson Lewis partner David Gordon presented that argument for Waffle House to the U.S. Supreme Court on October 10, 2001. In opposition, the EEOC argued the arbitration agreement does not prevent it from suing the employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act and seeking the full range of remedies available to an aggrieved individual. [EEOC v. Waffle House, Inc., Docket No. 99-1823 (Sup. Ct., 10/10/01).]

The parties squared off over whether the EEOC could pursue individual remedies on behalf of the employee as an individual, in addition to any injunctive relief it could pursue against the employer for engaging in unlawful discriminatory conduct. Although the employee had agreed to binding arbitration of all job-related disputes as a condition of employment, he had not availed himself of the arbitration system to redress his complaint.

In answering questions from the nine justices, Mr. Gordon acknowledged the EEOC had a public interest role in preventing discrimination, but he argued that role did not encompass pursuing specific remedies on behalf of an individual claimant who previously had agreed to submit employment disputes to binding arbitration. Under the Federal Arbitration Act, there is a strong policy favoring arbitration, Mr. Gordon said, and if an individual is a party to a valid arbitration agreement, the EEOC must take the employee as it finds him, in this case bound by the agreement.

This is the second time this year the justices have considered the scope and effect of an agreement to arbitrate employment disputes. In March, the Court issued its decision in Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Adams, where it held a mandatory arbitration agreement was enforceable and required an employee to submit the dispute to arbitration.

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