Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s broadside legal attack on federal equal employment laws was thrown out of court yesterday by U.S. District Court Judge June L. Green.
Green dismissed the potentially far-reaching lawsuit that Sears filed in January against 10 government agencies.
In what amounted to an attempt to shift the blame for employment bias from private employers to the federal government, Sears contended that equal employment opportunity laws could not be enforced because the government by its policies had created "an unbalanced workforce" dominated by white males.
"Sears must recognize that personnel policies reflecting earlier and more limited national attitudes must be modified to widen employment opportunities for all," Green ruled yesterday.
Her decision appeared to clear the way for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to proceed with a massive job discrimination case against Sears that has been under investigation for several years.
The EEOC has found "patterns of sex, race and national origin discrimination at all levels" of Sears. The agency reportedly is preparing to file one of the biggest job idscrimination complaints ever against Sears. The government's demands for back pay and promotions are expected to be nearly as large as the $100 million settlement in a similar complaint against American Telephone and Tegelgraph Co.
While most employers accused of discriminating in hiring and promotion have settled with the government, Sears in January launched what amounted to a preemptive strike against the EEOC.
Drafted by civil rights activist attorney Charles Morgan Jr., the Sears lawsuit contended it is the government's fault that women and minority group members are outnumbered by white men in good jobs.
Through veterans preference laws, the draft and G.I. Bill education benefits, the government gave white men a head start in the race for jobs. Morgan argued. And by failing to enforce antidiscrimination laws in housing and education, the government made it difficult for women and minorities to catch up with the favored men.
White Sears built a persuasive rhetorical case to explain why white men generally earn more money than blacks and women, the legal foundation of its lawsuit was questioned from the start.
Green's ruling dismissed the suit on grounds that "Sears had failed to present a justifiable case or controversy" that could be decided by the courts.
"There was never any doubt in the legal community that this suit would be dismissed," Eleanor Holmes Norton, chairperson of the EEOC, commented yesterday. "The equal employment opportunity laws are too serious to be entangled with frivolous litigation."
Edward Telling, chairman and chief executive officer of Sears, said last night, "We are disappointed that this court was not willing to require the government to establish priorities and resolve conflicts which we believe are hurting the cause of equal opportunity.
"Whether or not we appeal will be decided after reviewing the court decision.
"We now hope the equal employment commission will get on with its threatened suit against Sears so these matters can be heard on their merits.
"We intend to continue our own affirmative action program which has shown outstanding results. One in every five employes of Sears is a member of a minority group and minorities represent 11 percent of our officials and managers. More than half of our employes are women as are 37 percent of our officials and managers. We believe this record speaks for itself."
Green's decision upheld arguments by U.S. Justice Department lawyers that the Sears case was "a political essay, not a lawsuit," that did not meet minimum constitutional requirements for a legal case.
She also dismissed Sears' claim that federal equal employment laws are so vague and conflicting that employes cannot possibly obey them.
"To be sure, realization of the national policy of genuine equal opportunity for all citizens is a formidable task, but not one beyond the notable skill and competence of Sears," Green wrote.
Sears is the nation's largest retailer with sales last year of $17.9 billion. The company has 294,000 employes, more than half women.
The EEOC complaint against the company contends that women and minority workers are systematically excluded from higher-paying jobs, both in Sears stores and in its corporate headquarters in Chicago.