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EEOC and Baker & Taylor Resolve Title VII Claim Challenging Severance Agreement

Consent Decree Makes Clear That Civil Rights Law Protects Communications With EEOC

U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois entered on July 10, 2013 a consent decree resolving a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Baker & Taylor, Inc., a leading distributor of print and digital content to libraries and retailers. The decree resolves Case No. 1:13 cv 03729, which was assigned to U.S. District Judge John Nordberg.

In the complaint that began the action, EEOC alleged that Baker & Taylor violated Section 707(a) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by conditioning employees' receipt of severance pay on an overly broad, misleading and unenforceable severance agreement that interfered with employees' rights to file charges and communicate with the EEOC. The agency essentially alleged that in order to receive severance pay, employees were required to sign a release agreement that could have been understood to bar the filing of charges with the EEOC and to limit communication with the agency.

"This is one of those cases that don't sound very serious initially," said EEOC Regional Attorney John C. Hendrickson. "But, in fact, the issue raised by this case and its resolution relate to a legal right that is of critical importance to all employees: the right to file a charge of discrimination and communicate with the EEOC and local Fair Employment Practices Agencies."

EEOC Supervisory Trial Attorney Gregory Gochanour added, "Free communication between the EEOC and employees is at the absolute heart of ensuring the nation's workplaces remain free from unlawful discrimination."

In addition to Hendrickson and Gochanour, EEOC Trial Attorneys Deborah Hamilton and Laura Feldman were responsible for the litigation.

Hamilton said, "The EEOC filed suit under Section 707 of Title VII, a provision that is often misunderstood. That provision permits the agency to quickly address a pattern or practice of discrimination."

To resolve the case, Baker & Taylor agreed to revise the company's severance agreement. The company also agreed that employees who signed the prior version of the agreement can file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC and the company will not raise the time limits on charge filing as a defense for a 180-day period, allowing these individuals the opportunity to communicate with the EEOC free from any fear that they are violating the conditions that govern their receipt of severance pay.

The EEOC's Chicago District Office, which handled the matter, is responsible for processing charges of discrimination, administrative enforcement and the conduct of agency litigation in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and North and South Dakota, with Area Offices in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.

The EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on its website at www.eeoc.gov.