High Court Boosts EEOC's Power

January 15, 2002 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) can still get workers back pay or other benefits from their employer - even if the employees have already agreed not to sue, the US Supreme Court has ruled.

The 6-3 ruling clarifies the EEOC’s powers and makes it more difficult for companies to force workers to stay away from the courts, according to the Associated Press.

The anti-discrimination agency is “the master of its own case,” and can make an independent decision about whether to pursue a lawsuit, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote on behalf of himself and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony M Kennedy, David H Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

“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,” Stevens wrote.

Cook Had Agreed to Arbitrate

The ruling stems from a dispute between Eric Scott Baker, a short-order cook who was fired after having a seizure at work, and a Waffle House restaurant in West Columbia, South Carolina.

Baker suffers from a seizure disorder as a result of an automobile accident. He was fired for what Waffle House officials said was his own safety and the good of the restaurant.

Instead of arbitration, however, Baker took his case to the EEOC, which sued in federal court for what it called a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Waffle House should have made reasonable allowances for Baker’s medical problem, so that he could go on working, the EEOC argued.

Lower court judges said the EEOC could use Baker’s case to win generally employee improvements at Waffle House, but couldn’t get much specifically for the cook because of his arbitration agreement. The EEOC appealed to the Supreme Court.

Arbitration Agreements Cheaper for Employers 

Arbitration agreements like Baker’s cover an estimated 10% of the American work force, and are increasingly popular with employers.

Businesses generally regard arbitration as a cheaper, faster and more predictable alternative to the court system. Civil rights groups and other employee advocates say employees often do not know what rights they are signing away.