Commissioner Ishimaru Calls EEOC's Field Office Reorganization 'Seriously Flawed'

Daily Labor Report 8/10/05

CHICAGO--Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner Stuart Ishimaru Aug. 8 criticized a recent field office reorganization initiative, contending that the agency had missed an important opportunity to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its enforcement activities.

But Ishimaru, the commission's only Democrat, said he remained hopeful that Congress would choose to intervene through the appropriations process.

"Right now it's a matter of: What is Congress going to do? That is still an open question," Ishimaru told BNA. "There are things in the appropriations bill that may put a stop to this. It is just a matter, at this point, of waiting."

Ishimaru was participating in a panel discussion on equal employment opportunity developments sponsored by the American Bar Association's Section on Labor and Employment Law. The section is meeting in Chicago during the ABA's annual meeting Aug. 4-9.

On July 8, EEOC voted 3-1 to approve a field office reorganization plan (131 DLR AA-1, 7/11/05) . Ishimaru opposed the reorganization effort, calling it "seriously flawed."

The reorganization plan would downsize eight district offices in Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Milwaukee, New Orleans, San Antonio, and Seattle. Those offices would be turned into "field" and "area" offices and have fewer management staffers. Two new offices would be added in Mobile, Ala., and Las Vegas. The plan reflects recommendations coming from a February 2003 report by the National Academy of Public Administration that called for a smaller number of field offices and a reorganization of EEOC headquarters.

While evaluating various options for restructuring the agency, Ishimaru consistently questioned the plan's impact on the EEOC's overall enforcement objectives. He told BNA that the commission ultimately chose a strategy that could undermine its effectiveness.

"We went over and over and over this, and at the end of the day I lost," Ishimaru said. "I think it was a missed opportunity. We really could have done some things to make the agency run better and be a more effective agency. We just refused to do it."

Suit on Behalf of Law Partners

Speaking on other topics, Ishimaru said the EEOC is using its authorities to examine the changing nature of the employer-employee relationship. That priority can be seen in the agency's class-based suit against the Chicago-based law firm Sidley Austin Brown & Wood LLP.

Filed under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act in federal court in Chicago, the suit seeks to represent the interests of two classes. The agency seeks damages on behalf of 31 former partners who were either demoted or forced to leave the firm during a restructuring. It also seeks damages on behalf of potentially hundreds of former Sidley partners who were forced to leave the organization under a mandatory retirement policy that goes back to 1978 (10 DLR A-7, 1/14/05 ).

Ishimaru said the case likely will turn on the viability of the partnership relationship between Sidley Austin and the affected class members. He said the class members were partners in name only, and carried none of the managerial responsibilities and benefits traditionally associated with partnership. Ishimaru said the litigation is attracting a lot of attention, particularly from law firms, because of the changing nature of partnerships.

"There has been a lot of interest from the legal community," he said. "Modern day law practices are a very different animal than when I got out of school. We're seeing many types of new relationships appearing."

By Michael Bologna