- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 16, 2002

The Supreme Court yesterday decided that workplace arbitration agreements do not bar the government from suing employers, dealing a setback to firms seeking to keep job disputes out of court.
By a 6-3 vote, the high court reversed rulings that barred the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from seeking damages for Waffle House grill cook Eric S. Baker, who was fired after suffering a seizure at work but had signed away any rights to sue.
Such agreements cover about 10 percent of the nation's work force, and the high court upheld their binding nature for all workers who sign them on March 21 in a 5-4 decision for Circuit City stores.
Federal law "clearly makes the EEOC the master of its own case and confers on the agency the authority to evaluate the strength of the public interest at stake," said the opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the dissent, joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia.
The court noted the EEOC contends it may pursue a worker's discrimination claim even if the employee doesn't want to do it, and the law does not contradict that view.
"It is the public agency's province not that of the court to determine whether public resources should be committed to the recovery of victim-specific relief [in court]," the majority opinion said.
In the dissent, Justice Thomas, a former EEOC director, said the agency must "take a victim of discrimination as it finds him" and should not second-guess an employee's decisions.
"I cannot agree that the EEOC may do on behalf of an employee that which an employee has agreed not to do for himself," he wrote.
Mr. Baker never began the arbitration process required by the mandatory agreement included in his job application, but instead opted to seek EEOC help under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Waffle House persuaded a trial court and the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals that Mr. Baker's agreement to accept arbitration meant the government could not act on his behalf to obtain back pay, reinstatement or compensatory and punitive damages for him.
Government lawyers in both the Clinton and Bush administrations said the agency must be able to use individuals as examples in seeking change.
The company and supportive business interests successfully argued to the 4th Circuit that EEOC was limited to broader issues involving change in overall hiring and promotion polices. Supporters of the federal arbitration law believe the practice saves time and money.
The decision is a rarity among recent arbitration rulings because it narrows the effect of the Federal Arbitration Act, holding that the law cannot keep a government agency that is not party to the agreement from standing in the employee's shoes to file a lawsuit.
Federal law grants the EEOC "exclusive authority" over whether to go to court and what to seek once a charge has been filed, the court said.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide