Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

EEOC withholds records in arbitration matters; corporate frustration with secret justice is ironic

Janet Dhillon
According to employers' lawyers, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is denying public access to investigation files in matters committed to arbitration, even while conceding that files in litigation matters must be disclosed under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Yesterday the Labor and Employment Law Practice Group of the Federalist Society held a teleforum with the provocative title, "Is the EEOC misusing the Freedom of Information Act to penalize employers that adopt mandatory employment arbitration programs?" Here is the description:

The EEOC is denying employers' FOIA requests for the EEOC's charge investigation files when resulting employment claims are proceeding in arbitration rather than litigation. Our panel will discuss whether the EEOC's justifications for denying such FOIA requests are consistent with FOIA and other governing federal statutes. We will consider a number of related issues. What is the EEOC's basis for treating litigation and arbitration differently in responding to employers' FOIA requests?  How long has the EEOC been making this distinction between litigation and arbitration? In light of the increasing prevalence of employment arbitration, should employers challenge the EEOC's FOIA practices and, if so, how?

Speakers included EEOC Commissioner Janet Dhillon and Jones Day attorney Eric Dreiband.

I regret, I didn't make it. My guess is that the EEOC is denying access on basis of the various exemptions for law enforcement investigation records, besides deliberative process. Without having heard either side of the debate, my inclination, probably like Dreiband's, is to doubt seriously the viability of any asserted distinction between arbitration and litigation.

What I find compelling about the case, though, is less the effort at FOIA exemption and more the irony of corporations being stymied on transparency and accountability when mandatory arbitration is a choice of their own design.

I wrote just yesterday about the problem of arbitration superseding litigation as our principal means of dispute resolution. And the fact that arbitration happens in secrecy is a big part of that problem. In litigation, the tort system achieves the important objectives of norm-setting and deterrence, besides the anti-vigilantism I mentioned yesterday. Norm-setting and deterrence, in turn, avert tortious conduct by the same respondent and other actors in the future. Secret justice undermines these objectives. Even the same bad actor can persist in its misconduct without risk of punitive consequences.

I don't approve of selective opacity by EEOC. But there's a scrumptious hypocrisy in companies wanting transparency and accountability in public enforcement mechanisms while they jealously secret their own dirty laundry against the public functions of the courts.

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