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GENERAL TELEPHONE COMPANY NORTHWEST v. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION ET AL.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES


decided: May 12, 1980.

GENERAL TELEPHONE COMPANY OF THE NORTHWEST, INC., ET AL
v.
EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION ET AL.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT.

White, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Brennan, Stewart, Marshall, and Blackmun, JJ., joined. Burger, C. J., and Powell, Rehnquist, and Stevens, JJ., filed a dissenting statement, post, p. 334.

Author: White

[ 446 U.S. Page 320]

 MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue in this case is whether the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) may seek classwide relief under § 706 (f)(1) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) without being certified as the class representative under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that certification was not required. 599 F.2d 322 (1979). Because this is a recurring issue on which the federal courts are divided,*fn1 we granted certiorari, 444 U.S. 989 (1979). We affirm the judgment.

I

Four employees of General Telephone Company of the Northwest, Inc. (General Telephone), filed charges with the EEOC complaining of sex discrimination in employment. After investigation, the EEOC found reasonable cause to suspect discrimination against women, and in April 1977 brought suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington under § 706 (f)(1) of Title VII, as amended, § 4, 86 Stat. 105, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-5 (f)(1).*fn2

[ 446 U.S. Page 321]

     The EEOC named as defendants General Telephone and its subsidiary, West Coast Telephone Company of California, Inc. (hereinafter collectively referred to as General Telephone), as well as the certified bargaining agent, Local Union No. 89, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The complaint alleged discrimination against female employees in General Telephone's facilities in the States of California, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon, in the form of restrictions on maternity leave, access to craft jobs, and promotion to managerial positions; it sought injunctive relief and backpay for the women affected by the challenged practices.

The complaint did not mention Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23,*fn3 and the EEOC did not seek class certification pursuant

[ 446 U.S. Page 322]

     to that Rule. In August 1977, the EEOC moved pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42 (b) "for an order bifurcating the issue of class liability from the issue of individual damages." The District Court referred the motion to a Magistrate, see Title VII, § 706 (f)(5), and General Telephone moved "for an order dismissing the class action aspects" of the complaint.*fn4

[ 446 U.S. Page 323]

     The Magistrate concluded that the EEOC was not required to comply with Rule 23 and recommended that the motion be denied. The District Court adopted the recommendation, denied the motion to dismiss, and then certified the issue for interlocutory appeal to the Ninth Circuit. The Court of Appeals accepted the appeal, see 28 U. S. C. § 1292 (b), and affirmed the District Court's ruling.

II

We agree with the Court of Appeals that Rule 23 is not applicable to an enforcement action brought by the EEOC in its own name and pursuant to its authority under § 706 to prevent unlawful employment practices.*fn5 We rely on the language of Title VII, the legislative intent underlying the 1972 amendments to Title VII, and the enforcement procedures under Title VII prior to the amendments.

A

Title VII protects all employees of and applicants for employment with a covered employer, employment agency, labor organization, or training program against discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Section 706 (a) empowers the EEOC "to prevent any person from engaging in any unlawful . . . practice" as set forth in the Title. Section

[ 446 U.S. Page 324706]

     (f)(1) specifically authorizes the EEOC to bring a civil action against any respondent not a governmental entity upon failure to secure an acceptable conciliation agreement,*fn6 the purpose of the action being to terminate unlawful practices and to secure appropriate relief, including "reinstatement or hiring . . . , with or without back pay," for the victims of the discrimination. See § 706 (g).

Title VII thus itself authorizes the procedure that the EEOC followed in this case. Upon finding reasonable cause to believe that General Telephone had discriminated against female employees, the EEOC filed suit seeking a permanent injunction against the discriminatory practices, remedial action to eradicate the effect of past discrimination, and "make whole" backpay, with interest, for persons adversely affected by the unlawful practices. Given the clear purpose of Title VII, the EEOC's jurisdiction over enforcement, and the remedies available, the EEOC need look no further than § 706 for its authority to bring suit in its own name for the purpose, among others, of securing relief for a group of aggrieved individuals. Its authority to bring such actions is in no way dependent upon Rule 23, and the Rule has no application to a § 706 suit.

Of course, Title VII defendants do not welcome the prospect of backpay liability; but the law provides for such liability and the EEOC's authority to sue for it. Moreover, the EEOC here requested relief only on behalf of "those persons adversely affected" and "in an amount to be proved at trial." App. 11. There is no claim or suggestion of unjustified, windfall backpay awards. That backpay relief is authorized is no basis for imposing the Rule 23 framework in an EEOC enforcement action. We do no more than follow a straightforward reading of the statute, which seems to us to authorize the EEOC to sue in its own name to enforce federal law by

[ 446 U.S. Page 325]

     obtaining appropriate relief for those persons injured by discriminatory practices forbidden by the Act.

B

This understanding of the statute is supported by the purpose of the 1972 amendments of providing the EEOC with enforcement authority. The purpose of the amendments, plainly enough, was to secure more effective enforcement of Title VII. As Title VII was originally enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the EEOC's role in eliminating unlawful employment practices was limited to "informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion." Civil actions for enforcement upon the EEOC's inability to secure voluntary compliance could be filed only by the aggrieved person. § 706 (e), 78 Stat. 260. Congress became convinced, however, that the "failure to grant the EEOC meaningful enforcement powers has proven to be a major flaw in the operation of Title VII."*fn7 S. Rep. No. 92-415, p. 4 (1971). The 1972 amendments to § 706 accordingly expanded the EEOC's enforcement powers by authorizing the EEOC to bring a civil action in federal district court against private employers reasonably suspected of violating Title VII. In

[ 446 U.S. Page 326]

     so doing, Congress sought to implement the public interest as well as to bring about more effective enforcement of private rights. The amendments did not transfer all private enforcement to the EEOC and assign to that agency exclusively the task of protecting private interests. The EEOC's civil suit was intended to supplement, not replace, the private action. Cf. Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co., 415 U.S. 36, 45 (1974). The EEOC was to bear the primary burden of litigation, but the private action previously available under § 706 was not superseded. Under § 706 (f)(1), the aggrieved person may bring his own action at the expiration of the 180-day period of exclusive EEOC administrative jurisdiction if the agency has failed to move the case along to the party's satisfaction, has reached a determination not to sue, or has reached a conciliation or settlement agreement with the respondent that the party finds unsatisfactory. The aggrieved person may also intervene in the EEOC's enforcement action. These private-action rights suggest that the EEOC is not merely a proxy for the victims of discrimination and that the EEOC's enforcement suits should not be considered representative actions subject to Rule 23. Although the EEOC can secure specific relief, such as hiring or reinstatement, constructive seniority, or damages for backpay or benefits denied, on behalf of discrimination victims, the agency is guided by "the overriding public interest in equal employment opportunity . . . asserted through direct Federal enforcement." 118 Cong. Rec. 4941 (1972). When the EEOC acts, albeit at the behest of and for the benefit of specific individuals, it acts also to vindicate the public interest in preventing employment discrimination.*fn8

[ 446 U.S. Page 327]

     C

Prior to 1972, the only civil actions authorized other than private lawsuits were actions by the Attorney General upon reasonable cause to suspect "a pattern or practice" of discrimination. These actions did not depend upon the filing of a charge with the EEOC; nor were they designed merely to advance the personal interest of any particular aggrieved person. Prior to 1972, the Department of Justice filed numerous § 707 pattern-or-practice suits. 118 Cong. Rec. 4080 (1972) (remarks of Sen. Williams). In none was it ever suggested that the Attorney General sued in a representative capacity or that his enforcement suit must comply with the requirements of Rule 23;*fn9 and this was true even though specific relief was awarded to individuals not parties to the suit.*fn10

[ 446 U.S. Page 328]

     The 1972 amendments, in addition to providing for a § 706 suit by the EEOC pursuant to a charge filed by a private party, transferred to the EEOC the Attorney General's authority to bring pattern-or-practice suits on his own motion. In discussing the transfer,*fn11 Senator Hruska described § 707 actions as "in the nature of class actions." 118 Cong. Rec. 4080 (1972). Senator Williams then noted that, upon the transfer, "[there] will be no difference between the cases that the Attorney General can bring under section 707 as a 'pattern or practice' charge and those which the [EEOC] will be able to bring." Id., at 4081. Senator Javits agreed with both Senators: "The EEOC . . . has the authority to institute exactly the same actions that the Department of Justice does under pattern or practice."*fn12 Senator Javits further noted

[ 446 U.S. Page 329]

     that "if [the EEOC] proceeds by suit, then it can proceed by class suit. If it proceeds by class suit, it is in the position of doing exactly what the Department of Justice does in pattern and practice suits. . . . [The] power to sue . . . fully qualifies the [EEOC] to take precisely the action now taken by the Department of Justice." Id., at 4081-4082. As we have said, the Department of Justice brought its suits in the name of the United States and without obtaining certification under Rule 23 -- it did not sue as a representative of the persons aggrieved -- and we must assume Congress' familiarity with the procedure. It is clear that with the 1972 amendments Congress intended the EEOC to proceed in the same manner; and thus, given the context, it is similarly clear that the references in debate to "class" suits referred to the availability of relief and not the procedure that would be applicable in such actions.*fn13

III

It is also apparent that forcing EEOC civil actions into the Rule 23 model would in many cases distort the Rule as it is

[ 446 U.S. Page 330]

     commonly interpreted and in others foreclose enforcement actions not satisfying prevailing Rule 23 standards but seemingly authorized by § 706 (f)(1). The undesirability of doing either supports our conclusion that the procedural requirements of the Rule do not apply.

A

Rule 23 (a), see n. 3, supra, imposes the prerequisites of numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation. When considered in the light of these requirements, it is clear that the Rule was not designed to apply to EEOC actions brought in its own name for the enforcement of federal law. Some of the obvious and more severe problems are worth noting.

The numerosity requirement requires examination of the specific facts of each case and imposes no absolute limitations. Title VII, however, applies to employers with as few as 15 employees. When judged by the size of the putative class in various cases in which certification has been denied, this minimum would be too small to meet the numerosity requirement.*fn14 In such cases, applying Rule 23 would require the EEOC to join all aggrieved parties despite its statutory authority to proceed solely in its own name.

The typicality requirement is said to limit the class claims to those fairly encompassed by the named plaintiff's claims. If Rule 23 were applicable to EEOC enforcement actions, it would

[ 446 U.S. Page 331]

     seem that the Title VII counterpart to the Rule 23 named plaintiff would be the charging party, with the EEOC serving in the charging party's stead as the representative of the class. Yet the Courts of Appeals have held that EEOC enforcement actions are not limited to the claims presented by the charging parties. Any violations that the EEOC ascertains in the course of a reasonable investigation of the charging party's complaint are actionable. See, e. g., EEOC v. General Electric Co., 532 F.2d 359, 366 (CA4 1976); EEOC v. McLean Trucking Co., 525 F.2d 1007, 1010 (CA6 1975). The latter approach is far more consistent with the EEOC's role in the enforcement of Title VII than is imposing the strictures of Rule 23, which would limit the EEOC action to claims typified by those of the charging party.

We note finally that the adequate-representation requirement is typically construed to foreclose the class action where there is a conflict of interest between the named plaintiff and the members of the putative class. In employment discrimination litigation, conflicts might arise, for example, between employees and applicants who were denied employment and who will, if granted relief, compete with employees for fringe benefits or seniority. Under Rule 23, the same plaintiff could not represent these classes. But unlike the Rule 23 class representative, the EEOC is authorized to proceed in a unified action and to obtain the most satisfactory overall relief even though competing interests are involved and particular groups may appear to be disadvantaged. The individual victim is given his right to intervene for this very reason. The EEOC exists to advance the public interest in preventing and remedying employment discrimination, and it does so in part by making the hard choices where conflicts of interest exist. We are reluctant, absent clear congressional guidance, to subject § 706 (f)(1) actions to requirements that might disable the enforcement agency from advancing the public interest in the manner and to the extent contemplated by the statute.

[ 446 U.S. Page 332]

     B

We observe that General Telephone does not urge application of Rule 23 to EEOC enforcement actions in the expectation or hope that the agency could not comply and would be forced to drop its action against General Telephone. Indeed, petitioners urge that the EEOC, in proper cases, would be able to meet the Rule 23 requirements. Brief for Petitioners 16-22. As we understand, petitioners' objective in seeking to invoke Rule 23 is aimed at securing a judgment in the EEOC's suit that will be binding upon all individuals with similar grievances in the class or subclasses that might be certified. We are sensitive to the importance of the res judicata aspects of Rule 23 judgments, but we are not free to depart from what we believe the statutory design to be.

We have noted in a related context the interface between employment discrimination remedies under a collective-bargaining agreement and those under Title VII. Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co., 415 U.S. 36 (1974), held that the employee did not forfeit Title VII relief by invoking the grievance and arbitration procedures under the collective-bargaining contract. We noted that "federal courts have been assigned plenary powers to secure compliance with Title VII." Id., at 45. Similarly, the courts retain remedial powers under Title VII despite a finding by the EEOC of no reasonable cause to believe that Title VII has been violated. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 798-799 (1973). We have also stressed the strong congressional intent to provide "make whole" relief to Title VII claimants: "'The provisions of this subsection are intended to give the courts wide discretion exercising their equitable powers to fashion the most complete relief possible. . . .' 118 Cong. Rec. 7168 (1972)." Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody, 422 U.S. 405, 421 (1975).

The 1972 amendments retained the private right of action as "an essential means of obtaining judicial enforcement of

[ 446 U.S. Page 333]

     Title VII," Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co., supra, at 45, while also giving the EEOC broad enforcement powers. In light of the "general intent to accord parallel or overlapping remedies against discrimination," 415 U.S., at 47, we are unconvinced that it would be consistent with the remedial purpose of the statutes to bind all "class" members with discrimination grievances against an employer by the relief obtained under an EEOC judgment or settlement against the employer. This is especially true given the possible differences between the public and private interests involved. Cf. Occidental Life Ins. Co. v. EEOC, 432 U.S. 355 (1977).

The courts, however, are not powerless to prevent undue hardship to the defendant and should perform accordingly. The employer may, by discovery and other pretrial proceedings, determine the nature and extent of the claims that the EEOC intends to pursue against it. Here, as we have noted, the EEOC moved to try initially the issue of liability, not to avoid proving individual claims, but merely to postpone such proof. It also goes without saying that the courts can and should preclude double recovery by an individual. Cf. Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co., supra, at 51, n. 14. Also, where the EEOC has prevailed in its action, the court may reasonably require any individual who claims under its judgment to relinquish his right to bring a separate private action.*fn15 The Title VII remedy is an equitable one; a court of equity should adjust the relief accordingly.

IV

We hold, therefore, that the EEOC may maintain its § 706 civil actions for the enforcement of Title VII and may seek specific relief for a group of aggrieved individuals without first obtaining class certification pursuant to Federal Rule

[ 446 U.S. Page 334]

     of Civil Procedure 23.*fn16 The judgment of the Ninth Circuit is accordingly

Affirmed.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE, MR. JUSTICE POWELL, MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST, and MR. JUSTICE STEVENS, for the reasons that are well stated by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in EEOC v. D. H. Holmes Co., Ltd., 556 F.2d 787 (1977), cert. denied, 436 U.S. 962 (1978), would reverse the judgment in this case.

Disposition

599 F.2d 322, affirmed.

Counsel FOOTNOTES

* Avrum M. Goldberg, William R. Weissman, Robert E. Williams, Douglas S. McDowell, and Philip Elman filed a brief for the Equal Employment Advisory Council as amicus curiae urging reversal.

Barry L. Goldstein and Jack Greenberg filed a brief for the N. A. A. C. P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., as amicus curiae urging affirmance.


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