The announcement of a lawsuit filed by four professors in NMU’s College of Business that alleges the university discriminated against them on the basis of their gender has raised questions on the accuracy and legitimacy of the results from an investigation performed by a federal agency involved in the suit.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that enforces civil rights and labor laws against workplace discrimination, investigated charges made by the four professors—Claudia Hart, Carol Steinhaus, Karin Stulz and Margaret Vroman—in Sept. 2016 claiming the university pays them less than their male counterparts.
According to the complaint, filed by Sterling Attorneys at Law, P.C. of Bloomington Hills on behalf of the professors, “the EEOC determined there is reasonable cause to believe that NMU violated” the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In a Feb. 21 op-ed published in The North Wind, NMU President Fritz Erickson claimed information that the Department of Justice and EEOC found NMU to be in violation of pay discrimination is incorrect.
“The EEOC has not found Northern in violation of any pay discrimination now or in the past. To date, the EEOC’s involvement was participation in a conciliation meeting to resolve these complaints,” Erickson said in the op-ed. “Unfortunately, this was not possible. There has been no formal ruling by the EEOC on this case.”
Erickson added that NMU’s Equal Opportunity Office performed a review of the claims made by the four professors, prior to their filing suit.
According to Letters of Determination obtained by The North Wind and issued by the EEOC Detroit Field Office to the professors and NMU, the EEOC determined there is reason to believe that a violation has occurred.
Specifically, the EEOC investigation into charges filed by Vroman “revealed there is reasonable cause to believe Charging Party was paid less due to her sex from 2013 to present,” according to an EEOC Letter of Determination dated Aug. 24, 2018.
Letters of Determination dated Aug. 27, 2018 claim the EEOC investigation into charges filed by Hart and by Steinhaus “revealed there is reasonable cause to believe Charging Party was paid less due [to] her sex in 2013 and 2014,” respectively.
Another Letter of Determination with the same date states the EEOC investigation into charges filed by Stulz “revealed there is reasonable cause to believe Charging Party has been paid less due [to] her sex since 2017.”
One of the attorneys representing the professors, Brian Farrar, said in an interview that Erickson’s characterization of the EEOC’s investigation in his op-ed was “misleading.”
“The EEOC is not a court of law, but downplaying the EEOC findings and to say they didn’t reach a determination and only had to do with conciliation is misleading,” Farrar said. “Determination letters are not given out routinely. They looked carefully and seriously determined this.”
When the EEOC determines there is reason to believe that a violation has occurred, “it shall endeavor to eliminate the alleged unlawful employment practice by informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion,” the Letters of Determination state.
The scheduled conciliation conference occurred in Oct. 2018, during which the attorney representing NMU “walked out in the middle,” Farrar said. “We were willing to keep discussing,” Farrar said. “We’re not the ones who closed the door on discussion.”
When conciliation does not succeed in resolving a charge, the EEOC has the authority to enforce violations of its statuses by filing a lawsuit in federal court. If the EEOC decides not to litigate, the charging party will receive a Notice of Right to Sue and may file a lawsuit in federal court within 90 days, according to the EEOC website.
On or about Dec. 18, 2018, the EEOC notified the professors by letter that their cases had been referred to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for review.
“We had silence from NMU and felt we had no other choice but to file the suit,” Farrar said. “It was a last resort.”
The DOJ is still reviewing the findings of the EEOC and may also bring charges on its own.
NMU Chief Marketing Officer Derek Hall said he was unable to comment at this time.