By Deborah Hopkins, January 23, 2019

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is now without a quorum. That’s right. As if no quorum at MSPB for more than two years wasn’t enough, and a multi-week government shutdown didn’t do it for you, EEOC is now helmed by only two out of a possible five Commissioners. Who’s left over there? Victoria Lipnic, a Republican, is the acting chair. Charlotte Burrows, a Democrat, is the only other remaining Commissioner.

But Deb, I thought the President reappointed Commissioner Chai Feldblum a year ago, to serve a third term?

Yes, In fact, he did. However, a few days ago, Commissioner Feldblum’s tenure at the EEOC ended. The reason? Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), has stated that he does not agree with Commissioner Feldblum’s positions on marriage and LGBTQ rights.

Nominations to EEOC are generally passed as a group by unanimous bipartisan consent, but Senator Lee made clear he would not vote yes to the confirmation.

The only other way Commissioner Feldblum could have been confirmed, then, would have been for Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), to call for a full Senate vote – something he refused to do. The result? The nomination died.

Let me be clear: Senator Lee did not ever directly mention Commissioner Feldblum’s sexual orientation in his comments but rather focused his criticism on her views about same-sex marriage. But it is widely known that Commissioner Feldblum was the first open lesbian on the Commission, and spent a large part of her tenure advocating for workplace protections for LGBTQ individuals inside and outside the federal government.

While she served under the Obama administration, Commissioner Feldblum was involved in two groundbreaking cases: Macy v. Attorney General, EEOC Appeal No. 0120120821 (2012), which stated that a federal employee’s transgender status is protected under Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination; and Baldwin v. FAA, EEOC Appeal No. 0120133080 (2015), which stated that a federal employee’s sexual orientation is protected under Title VII. A number of federal district and appeals courts have ruled in the same manner for employees of private companies, though there is currently a circuit split on the issue.

Ironic, isn’t it, that more 2 million federal employees and countless private employees now have protections under the law for LGBTQ status – due in large part to Commissioner Feldblum’s tireless work – and now she has been essentially fired for the very same status she fought so hard to protect. And as a political appointee, she has no rights to appeal.

Commissioner Feldblum was also an advocate for disability rights, and co-chaired a bipartisan task force on sexual harassment at the EEOC. She also spoke at numerous EXCEL conferences and even worked with FELTG on a webinar discussing transgender discrimination and harassment. I can say without a doubt in my mind, that her voice on the Commission will be greatly missed.

So what now? Not only is Commissioner Feldblum out of a job (though not for long, I’d guess), EEOC now lacks a quorum. While AJ decisions are still being issued and federal sector EEO appeals are still able to be processed (after the shutdown, that is), some of the Commission’s work will be halted until there are at least three Commissioners seated. The EEOC may not be able to bring certain cases that would be costly, would have a broad reach or affect large numbers of people, or would consider a new question of the law or its interpretation. Other work may be delegated to the regional offices.

Though the impact of a lack of quorum is less significant on the day-to-day operations of federal workers, it’s still a source of frustration and not the way the agency was ever intended to operate.

What is happening in the world of federal employment law – and will the madness ever end?

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