WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, following the lead of the White House, has decided not to apply the new Civil Rights Act to thousands of pending lawsuits involving alleged employment discrimination.
The decision means that government lawyers will not seek damages on behalf of women, blacks and other minorities who say they were victims of job bias.
Under earlier federal civil-rights laws, job discrimination was illegal, but victims could not generally win damages. The new measure, signed into law Nov. 21, gives victims of sexual bias the right to win up to $300,000 in damages.
But Congress did not make clear whether the new law applies to the thousands of discrimination lawsuits filed before then but still unresolved.
"We felt the Supreme Court precedents suggest that the law is not retroactive," said EEOC Chairman Evan Kemp Jr.
The five-member commission voted Friday not to apply the law to pending cases and the decision was announced yesterday, Kemp said.
The EEOC often brings suits on behalf of disgruntled workers who claim that they were victims of job bias. However, these workers, if dissatisfied with the EEOC's stand, can also find private lawyers to represent them and seek damages on their behalf.
The EEOC's move was foreshadowed by President Bush's announcement during the signing ceremony on the Civil Rights Act that White House lawyers believed that the new law should not be applied retroactively. Department of Justice attorneys have taken the same stand in a pending court case involving an FBI agent who said that he was a victim of racial bias on the job.
But attorneys on both sides of the issue said that the final decision would be made by the Supreme Court, not by government agencies.
"I would guess this issue [of retroactivity] will soon be before every [federal] district court in the country. And it will have to be decided ultimately by the Supreme Court," said Douglas McDowell, general counsel to the pro-business Equal Employment Advisory Council.
"I think the EEOC felt obligated to follow the White House on this . . . but their view is not binding on anyone. This is a decision that will be made in the courts," said Joseph Sellers of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
In recent weeks, lawyers for civil rights plaintiffs and the government have been examining the text of the new Civil Rights Act and have been distressed to find it ambiguous on many points.
"To be honest about it, Congress made a mess of it," said one Department of Justice attorney. Because congressional Democrats and White House lawyers were unable to agree on many key points, they simply agreed on vague wording that will force judges to resolve disputes over the meaning of the law.