New Civil Rights Law Puts Many Lawsuits in Limbo : Bias: The EEOC rules that thousands of pending cases are not covered by the statute. Experts on both sides say the Supreme Court must settle dispute.


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 generally could not win damages. The new measure, signed into law on Nov. 21, gives victims of sexual discrimination 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 J. Kemp Jr.

The five-member commission voted Friday not to apply the law to pending cases, and the decision was announced Monday, Kemp said.

The EEOC often brings suits on behalf of workers who claim 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 Civil Rights Act signing ceremony that White House lawyers believed the new law should not be applied retroactively. Justice Department attorneys have taken the same stand in a pending court case involving an FBI agent who says he was a victim of racial bias on the job.


But attorneys on both sides of the issue said that the final decision will be made by the Supreme Court, not by government agencies.

“I would guess this issue 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 (members) 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 Justice Department 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.

For example, the law says only that its provisions “shall take effect upon enactment.” Key Democrats say that wording means the new law applies to pending cases. Republicans, including the Bush White House, say it means the law does not apply to cases in the pipeline.

To make matters worse, the Supreme Court itself has been unclear on whether new laws should be applied to pending cases. On several occasions, the court has said that new laws should be applied to upcoming cases, while in other instances, the justices have taken the opposite view.