High court to decide if EEOC can tell agencies to pay up

High court to decide if EEOC can tell agencies to pay up


The Supreme Court said last week it will decide whether the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can order other federal agencies to pay compensatory damages to employees who have experienced discrimination.

The case, West v. Gibson (98-238), looks at whether the EEOC has the authority to order agencies to pay damages for such factors as emotional distress, or whether employees must file suit in federal court to receive such damages.

The high court will take up the case of a Department of Veterans Affairs employee who was turned down for a promotion because he is a man. Two female supervisors at a VA supply depot in Hines, Ill., passed over accountant Michael Gibson in favor of a female applicant when a supervisory position was open. The EEOC found the VA had discriminated against Gibson and ordered his promotion and back pay. When VA missed the EEOC's deadline to follow that order, Gibson sued in federal court, adding demands of compensatory damages for mental anguish and emotional distress.

The VA then complied with the EEOC order for promotion and back pay, so the federal judge ruled moot Gibson's call for the promotion and back pay and ruled that the demand of compensatory damages should have been raised before the EEOC.

Gibson appealed. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the EEOC does not have the authority to make compensatory damages, saying employees must go to court to seek such claims. Under the appeals court's ruling, Gibson could seek additional money from the government even though he didn't ask the EEOC for compensatory damages.

Other circuit courts have ruled that the EEOC has the authority to order compensatory damages, so in those circuits employees must seek those claims before the EEOC.

The government appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the EEOC can order agencies to pay compensatory damages.