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The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brings relatively few cases against employers — 300 or so each year. But the caseload signals the direction and priorities of the agency, and for that reason is closely tracked by the employment community. Since Chairwoman Cari M. Dominguez took the helm six months ago, the commission has brought several big new cases and settled others for record amounts of money. Here is an overview of the key cases identified by Dominguez and the agency’s enforcement branch. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter: Last September, the EEOC sued the Wall Street brokerage firm for gender discrimination against Allison Schieffelin, a former convertible bond sales representative and some 100 other women in the firm’s Institutional Equity Division. “It is very rare for women at these professional levels to come to the EEOC to file a complaint,” Dominguez said. “It’s called ‘kiss your career goodbye.’ “ She said that the typical profile of a complainant is an hourly wage earner in manufacturing, retail or a small company which typically lack a high level of sophistication as to employment practices. “So to have somebody at this level come in is quite significant,” she said. The case, which is being handled by the New York district office, is currently in discovery. Beauty Enterprises Inc: The New York district office brought this national origin suit against the nation’s largest distributor of minority beauty products for enforcing an English-only policy in which employees were required to speak English on breaks and in personal phone conversations, even though many of them were hired for their bilingual skills. EEOC Acting Deputy General Counsel Nicholas M. Inzeo said that the company did not give a specific rationale for the policy but the sense he got was that the employer felt it would make non-Spanish speaking employees uncomfortable. “If I called home to speak to my mother, you’d better believe I am going to speak Spanish,” said Dominguez, who was born in Havana, Cuba, and immigrated to the United States as a child in 1961. The case is pending trial. Dial Corporation: The EEOC has sued Dial Corporation for “frequent and continuous incidents of sexual harassment” at a soap factory in suburban Chicago. According to the agency, it is the EEOC’s biggest sexual harassment case since a $34 million settlement with Mitsubishi Motors Manufacturing of America in 1998. More than 100 women are prepared to testify to a history of harassment involving more than 40 supervisors and managers at the plant. Deposition testimony describes the workplace equivalent of a big, out-of-control fraternity, where obscene soap carvings, indecent exposures, unwanted kissing and groping and requests for sexual favors were the order of the day. One woman testified she was pinned against the wall by a co-worker while he re-enacted a scene from a pornographic movie. The company even allegedly sponsored a “best breast” competition, in which a photographer went around taking pictures of female employee’s chests, pinned them to a bulletin board and held a vote for the winner. “It was trying to create an overall friendly productive environment,” one supervisor told the agency. The case is pending trial. Sidley Austin Brown & Wood: In this subpoena enforcement action against one of the nation’s largest law firms, a federal judge last month ordered the firm to produce information regarding possible age discrimination in downgrading 32 individuals from “partner” status and reducing the mandatory retirement age from 65 to a sliding scale of 60 to 65. The firm has appealed the decision. “In terms of really looking at how a partnership is defined, this is the first of its kind,” said Inzeo. “All kinds of partnerships — law, accounting, etc. — will be looking closely at this case.” Venator Group, Specialty Inc., formerly known as F.W. Woolworth Co., Inc.: In a nationwide lawsuit, the New York district office has sued the discount retail chain for age discrimination in terminating more than 600 workers during a reduction in force. Many of the laid off employees were between 60 and 80 years old and had been with the company for up to 40 years, according to the agency. They were then allegedly replaced with younger workers hired from outside. SETTLED CASES The EEOC has also recently settled a number of big cases. By far the heftiest — and one of the largest ever for the agency — was the $47 million settlement earlier this month with Rent-A-Center Inc., the nation’s largest rent-to-own company, with more than 2,200 stores. The EEOC had sued the Texas company for systemic sex discrimination. The settlement, which also requires the company to reform its employment practices, extinguished an earlier agreement in a parallel private class action. The EEOC had intervened in the case, arguing that the proposed $15 million settlement was inadequate and unfair. “We had reason to believe that the settlement in that case was not a “‘real’ settlement,” Inzeo said. Other recent settlements include a $10 million agreement reached with Verizon Communications Inc. over charges that the company unfairly denied pension credits to women on maternity leave, and a $6.8 million consent decree with retail giant Wal-Mart Stores over charges that its hiring policies discriminated against disabled applicants.

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