Trump Nominates Corporate Counsel as New EEOC Chair

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By Kevin McGowan

President Donald Trump nominated a woman who has been general counsel for three major U.S. corporations as the next chair of the EEOC.

Janet Dhillon, executive vice president and general counsel of Burlington Stores Inc., would begin a five-year term on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and be designated as chair upon confirmation by the Senate, the White House said. Trump sent Dhillon’s nomination to the Senate on June 29, a day after announcing his intent to do so.

Dhillon’s nomination was called a surprise by employer-side attorneys who closely watch developments at the EEOC. But she has an administration connection—her husband, Uttam Dhillon, was appointed by Trump in January as a special assistant to the president and deputy counsel in the White House counsel’s office.

This is Trump’s first nomination to the EEOC. Another seat on the five-member commission is also vacant, as is the EEOC general counsel position. Senate confirmation of Dhillon and another EEOC nominee yet to be named would give the GOP a 3-2 majority on the bipartisan commission. Democrats currently have a 3-1 edge, with Victoria Lipnic (R) serving as acting chair.

If confirmed by the Senate, Dhillon would serve a term ending July 1, 2022. Lipnic would return to her commissioner role, in which she is confirmed for a term running until July 1, 2020.

Before joining Burlington Stores in 2015, Dhillon was executive vice president and general counsel of J.C. Penney Co. for six years. She previously was a senior vice president and general counsel at US Airways Group Inc., according to the White House. She practiced law at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP for 13 years before launching her corporate counsel career. Dhillon was ranked first in her class at the UCLA School of Law, the White House said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said he’s “hopeful” that Dhillon “will help restore” the EEOC to “its core mission of protecting American workers from discrimination.”

“I look forward to a fair and prompt nomination process,” Alexander said in a June 29 email to Bloomberg BNA.

Retail Group Applauds

The Retail Industry Leaders Association hailed the nomination of Dhillon, who served as president of the Retail Litigation Center Inc. from 2010 to 2013. The litigation center, an affiliate of the retail industry association, files briefs supporting employers in court battles over labor and employment law issues.

“As a private sector general counsel with long-time experience in the retail industry, Janet is an exceptional choice to help the Commission succeed in its mission,” RILA President Sandy Kennedy said in a June 29 statement.

Dhillon “truly understands the impact and opportunity retail provides to our American workforce and we look forward to working with her in her new role,” Kennedy said.

A Surprise, but With Credentials

Management lawyers contacted by Bloomberg BNA June 29 said Dhillon is largely a mystery to them.

The nomination is “a little bit of a surprise,” said James Plunkett, senior government relations counsel with Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart in Washington.

But Dhillon “certainly has experience” in dealing with employment law and employees, Plunkett told Bloomberg BNA June 29.

The EEOC will undergo “a period of adjustment” in accommodating a new chair from outside the agency, said Barry Hartstein, a partner with Littler Mendelson in Chicago.

Senate Democrats during the confirmation process probably will have questions about Dhillon’s past advocacy for retail employers, he told Bloomberg BNA June 29.

Some members of Congress, EEOC staff, and agency stakeholders also “will be very disappointed” because they supported Lipnic for permanent chair, Hartstein said.

Lipnic, who has served on the EEOC since 2010, is “good at building bridges” among the employers, workers, civil rights advocates, and various groups affected by the agency’s work, he said.

A spokeswoman for the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment.

Women’s Group Has ‘Concerns’

Vicky Shabo, a vice president with the National Partnership for Women & Families in Washington, said she “would have serious concerns” about Dhillon’s ability to lead the EEOC in a way that protects the rights of women, racial minorities, and others covered by the federal anti-discrimination laws.

That evaluation is based “first and foremost” on Dhillon’s past leadership role at the Retail Litigation Center, Shabo told Bloomberg BNA June 29.

It’s also “deeply concerning” that Dhillon never has held a government post, Shabo said. Such prior experience is “beneficial, but not required” for success leading a government agency such as the EEOC, she said.

But in an administration that has a scarcity of officials with prior government service, it’s troubling the president again nominated someone without that in her background, Shabo said.

The National Partnership has “a very good relationship” with Lipnic, who is “very diligent” about hearing the views of advocacy groups even about topics on which Lipnic disagrees with them, Shabo said.

“I hope that if confirmed, Dhillon will bring that sense of fairness and inclusion,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kevin McGowan at kmcgowan@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

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