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EEOC can’t sue over nationwide discrimination unless it first investigates

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Employers with locations in multiple states that find themselves responding to an EEOC discrimination complaint sometimes fear the agency won’t limit its investigation to a single complaint or two.

Instead, they worry the commission might conduct a wide-ranging investigation and sue over so-called “pattern-and-practices” discrimination, alleging companywide bias. And that can take a simple case and turn it into multimillion-dollar ­litigation.

Fortunately, the EEOC can’t just look at the initial complaint and sue for companywide discrimination. As this recent case shows, employers will get fair warning because the commission has to conduct its own thorough national investigation first.

Recent case: Several women who worked at Sterling Jewelers locations filed EEOC complaints in which they alleged men were paid more and promoted more frequently. One New York investigator handled their complaints. The EEOC then filed a federal pattern-and-practices lawsuit, alleging that the company discriminated at every location and in every state where it had employees.

The company protested, arguing that the EEOC should have conducted a nationwide investigation before filing suit.

The court agreed. It said the commission has the burden of proving it did just that. It can’t use the litigation process to ferret out the evidence it thinks will prove its nationwide case. (EEOC v. Sterling Jewelers, No. 08-CV-00706, WD NY, 2014)

Final note: You will now know earlier when the EEOC suspects nationwide discrimination, because it will have to launch an investigation.

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