A federal judge in Chicago yesterday threw out one of the largest cases brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, ruling that Sears, Roebuck & Co. was not guilty of discriminating against female employes.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge John Nordberg ended the last of several celebrated bias cases brought against big corporations during the Carter administration.
The Sears decision is unlikely to be appealed because the EEOC members appointed by President Reagan have made no secret of their distaste for the case and the statistical approach it embodies. The EEOC complaint was based not on charges that Sears discriminated against specific female employes, but on statistics showing women were underrepresented in certain kinds of jobs.
The case was brought to the EEOC in 1973; the commission sued Sears in 1979.
Sears Chairman Edward A. Brennan hailed the ruling "after 12 years of costly and time-consuming investigation. Judge Nordberg's decision makes it clear that the EEOC's accusations against Sears were inaccurate and grossly unfair.
"During the 10-month trial, the EEOC was unable to produce one victim or prove the occurrence of even one discriminatory act," Brennan said. "Despite the record of Sears' leadership in affirmative action, these proceedings caused headlines and television coverage alleging discrimination employment . . . . "
EEOC Chairman Clarence Thomas had publicly questioned the case, which has consumed a major part of his agency's litigation budget, costing $2.8 million for expert testimony alone. Thomas tried without success to settle the case out of court.
Thomas, who had not seen the decision, said yesterday that the Sears suit "was an enormously expensive case to fight, one of those broad class-action suits. I want to bring cases where we can remedy the wrong and get out, and not let it drag on for over a decade."
Thomas said last year that he could not drop the case because "the liberals and everybody else would eat me alive. It's like the Vietnam war to me -- as long as we are in it, we should fight as hard as we can to win."
EEOC spokeswoman Deborah J. Graham also disputed suggestions that her agency wanted to lose the case in a way that would discredit bias suits based on statistics. "We fought the case as hard as possible," she said.
Some EEOC officials have expressed concern that Sears, if it won the case, could successfully sue the government for its legal fees, estimated to be as high as $20 million. Sears general counsel Philip Knox said yesterday that the company is considering such an action.
The heart of the EEOC's case was statistical. While 60 percent of applicants for sales jobs at Sears from 1973 to 1980 were women, about 27 percent of the persons hired were women, the EEOC said. In 1972, 9.9 percent of such jobs went to women.
The government also charged Sears with failing to promote enough women on its sales staff to commissioned sales jobs, which are potentially more lucrative. Sears responded with expert testimony and polls showing that women were not interested in commissioned sales jobs, which often involved selling such products as house siding, plumbing and auto parts.
The government's argument was ridiculed by Charles Morgan, former head of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office, who represents Sears. He has said that many women simply are not interested in selling auto parts.
"We pushed for a trial all the way," Morgan said yesterday. "Sears contended that it was innocent and . . . had been singled out for wrongful reasons."
After the Reagan administration took office, Sears settled on some allegations of race discrimination -- which had been filed in the Carter years -- without having to make any back pay awards. But it continued to fight the sex discrimination charges, which were aired at the trial last year.