EEOC Year-End Countdown

Tick, Tock….The EEOC Runs Out The Clock – Fiscal Year 2017 Marks A Last Minute Return To Frantic Filing

Posted in EEOC Litigation

By Matthew J. GagnonChristopher J. DeGroff, and Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: With uncertain times and profound changes anticipated for the EEOC, employers anxiously await what enforcement litigation the EEOC has in store. Although 2016 showed a marked decline in filings, fiscal year 2017 shows a return to vigorous enforcement filings, with a substantial number of filings in the waning days of the fiscal year.

Employers are living in uncertain times. The impact of a Trump Administration and the EEOC’s new Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) for fiscal years 2017-2021 are still working themselves out in the FY 2017 filing trends. Nonetheless, one trend has reemerged: a vigorous number of EEOC case filings. It looks like the anemic numbers of FY 2016 were just a bump in the road, as FY 2017 has revealed an increase in total filings, even eclipsing the numbers from FY 2015 and 2014. (Compare here to here and here.) This year, the EEOC filed 202 actions, 184 merits lawsuits and 18 subpoena enforcement actions.

The September filing frenzy is still an EEOC way-of-life, as this past month yet again holds the title for most filings compared to any other month. At the time of publication, 88 lawsuits were filed in September, including 21 in the last two days alone. In fact, the EEOC filed more cases in the last three months of FY 2017 than it did during all of FY 2016. The total number of filings for the remaining months remains consistent with prior years, including a noticeable ramp up period boasting double digit numbers through the summer.

Filings out of the Chicago district office were back up in FY 2017 after an uncharacteristic decline to just 7 total filings in 2016. This year, Chicago hit 21 filings, an enormous increase from last year. This is closer to the total number of Chicago filings in FY 2015 and 2014 (26 in each year). The Los Angeles district office also increased its filings, hitting a high of 22, a substantial jump compared to previous years and the most of any district office in FY 2017. On the other end of the spectrum, the Phoenix district office has seen a notable drop, with only 7 filings compared to 17 in FY 2016.

New SEP, Same Focus

Every year we analyze what the EEOC says about its substantive focus as a way to understand what conduct it is targeting. This year, Title VII takes center stage. Although Title VII has consistently been the largest category of filings, last year showed a dip in the percentage of filings alleging Title VII violations, at only 41%. Nonetheless, this year Title VII has regained its previous proportion, accounting for 53% of all filings. This is on par with FY 2015 and 2014, showing once again that FY 2016 seems to have been an outlier.

Although the 2017-2021 SEP outlined the same general enforcement priorities as the previous version of the SEP (covering FY 2012 to 2016), the new SEP added “backlash discrimination” towards individuals of Muslin/Sikh/Arab/Middle Eastern/South Asian communities as an additional focus. One would expect this focus might increase the number of Title VII claims alleging either religious, racial, or national origin discrimination. However, those filings stayed relatively even, and were even a bit down from previous years. Religious, national origin, and race discrimination claims made up 42% of all Title VII claims, compared to 50% in 2016 and 46% in 2015.

Uncertainty For Equal Pay Claims

With a new administration came a new Acting Chair for the EEOC. President Trump appointed Victoria Lipnic as Acting Chair on January 25, 2017. Employers expected the EEOC’s new leader to steer the EEOC’s agenda in a different direction. Some believed Lipnic was foreshadowing future trends when she made it clear at her first public appearance – hosted by none other than Seyfarth Shaw – that she is “very interested in equal pay issues.” (See here.) And indeed, we have seen a slight uptick in the number of EPA claims filed in FY 2017. In FY 2017, The EEOC filed 11 EPA claims, compared to 6 in 2016, 5 in 2015, and 2 in 2014.

However, on June 28, 2017, President Trump tapped Janet Dhillon as Chair of the EEOC. Dhillon would come to the EEOC with extensive experience in a big law firm and as the lead lawyer at three large corporations, US Airways, J.C. Penney, and Burlington Stores Inc. Although it is too early to know how she could change the direction of the agency if confirmed, it is entirely possible that she could back away from previous goals to pursue equal pay claims more aggressively.

The Trump Administration has also made other moves that may indicate a change in direction with respect to equal pay initiatives. On February 1, 2016, the EEOC proposed changes to the EEO-1 report that would require all employers with more than 100 employees to submit more detailed compensation data to the EEOC, including information regarding total compensation and total hours worked by race, ethnicity, and gender. This was a change from the previous EEO-1 report, which only required employers to report on employee gender and ethnicity in relation to job titles. However, on August 29, 2017, the new EEO-1 reporting requirements were indefinitely suspended. We will have to wait and see whether the slight uptick in EPA claims in FY 2017 was a one-year anomaly.

Implications For Employers

The changes brought by the Trump Administration are still in the process of working themselves down into the rank and file of many federal agencies. The EEOC is no exception. Despite all of the unrest and uncertainty about where the EEOC may be headed, the FY 2017 filing trends largely show a return to previous years, albeit with a slight uptick in EPA claims. Certainly, changes in top personnel will have an impact on how the EEOC pursues its enforcement agenda. Exactly what that impact will be remains to be seen.

Loyal readers know that this post is merely a prelude to our full analysis of trends and developments affecting EEOC litigation, which will be published at the end of the calendar year. Stay tuned for our continued analysis of FY 2017 EEOC filings, and our thoughts about what employers should keep an eye on as we enter FY 2018. We look forward to keeping you in the loop all year long!

Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.

EEOC Ordered To Pay $1.9 Million For Frivolous Claims Against Trucking Company

Posted in EEOC Litigation

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By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In the latest chapter of the ongoing legal battle between the EEOC and delivery company CRST Van Expedited regarding the agency’s sexual harassment claims, a federal district court ordered the EEOC to pay $1.9 million in attorneys’ fees to the company for pursuing claims that it knew or should have known were frivolous.

Employers should have this ruling handy when challenging whether the EEOC fulfilled its pre-suit obligations under Title VII. It is undoubtedly a signal ruling relative to the agency’s missteps in “suing now and aiming later…”

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In a long and winding legal journey that made a pit stop at the U.S. Supreme Court, the EEOC v. v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc., No. 07-CV-95, 2017 LEXIS 155134 (N.D. Iowa Sept. 22, 2017),  litigation involves the largest fee sanction award ever levied against the EEOC – nearly $4.7 million. In August 2013, after the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa imposed the nearly $4.7 million award, the EEOC appealed, and the Eighth Circuit reversed and remanded several fee issues for further proceedings.  Id. at *2.  Following CRST’s appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded the Eighth Circuit’s ruling.  On remand, the Eighth Circuit vacated its prior judgment and remanded back to the District Court.  Thereafter, CRST moved for a supplemental fee award in the amount of approximately $975,000, consisting of attorneys’ fees for work performed in the case following the District Court’s August 1, 2013 Order.  Judge Linda R. Reade of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa ordered the EEOC to pay approximately $1.9 million in attorneys’ fees, out-of-pocket expenses and taxable costs to CRST, but denied CRST’s motion for a supplemental fee award.

For employers embroiled in EEOC litigation, the $1.9 million fee award is an exceedingly important example of a court holding the Commission accountable when it fails to satisfy its pre-suit investigation duties under Title VII.

Case Background

As we discussed in our blog post here, Section 706(k) authorizes district courts to award attorneys’ fees to the “prevailing party” in a Title VII case.  In relevant part, Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 421 (1978) held that fee awards to a prevailing defendant are permissible only if the plaintiff’s lawsuit was “frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.”  After CRST successfully obtained the dismissal of the EEOC’s Title VII claims for sexual harassment, the District Court granted CRST’s motion for an award of attorneys’ fees and costs and directed the EEOC to pay CRST nearly $4.7 million, finding that the EEOC’s actions in pursuing this lawsuit were unreasonable, contrary to the procedure outlined by Title VII, and imposed an unnecessary burden on both CRST and the District Court.

After the EEOC appealed, the Eighth Circuit reversed and held that the District Court “did not make particularized findings of frivolousness, unreasonableness, or groundlessness as to each individual claim” and remanded these claims to the District Court to make such individualized determinations.  Further, the Eighth Circuit found that the District Court’s dismissal of 67 claims based on the EEOC’s failure to satisfy Title VII’s pre-suit obligations did not constitute a ruling on the merits, and that therefore, CRST was not a prevailing party as to these claims.  The Eighth Circuit also held that CRST could not satisfy the Christianburg standard for the same reason: “[P]roof that a plaintiff’s case is frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless is not possible without a judicial determination of the plaintiff’s case on the merits.”  Thereafter, following CRST’s petition for certiorari, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted the case for review.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Eighth Circuit and remanded the case for further proceedings.  Id. at *5.  On June 28, 2016, the Eighth Circuit entered a judgment vacating its prior panel opinion and remanding to the District Court for further proceedings.  The District Court ordered briefing on the issues remanded by the U.S. Supreme Court, where CRST requested an additional a supplemental fee award in the amount of approximately $975,000, consisting of attorneys’ fees for work performed in the case following the District Court’s August 1, 2013 Order.

The Court’s Decision

On September 22, 2017, the District Court awarded nearly $1.9 million in attorneys’ fees, out-of-pocket expenses and taxable costs to CRST, but denied CRST’s motion for a supplemental fee award.  In ordering the $1.9 million award, the District Court found that CRST was the prevailing party as to the sixty-seven claims at issue, that the sixty-seven claims met the standard announced in Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412 (1978), and made individualized findings as to seventy-eight of the individual claimants for which the court granted CRST summary judgment.  Id. at *5-6.

CRST had moved for a supplemental fee award of $975,000 for the following work it performed: (1) briefs, oral argument, and rehearing petition in the EEOC’s appeal to the Eighth Circuit from the August 1, 2013 Order; (2) CRST’s petition for certiorari, briefs, and oral argument in the Supreme Court resulting in reversal of the Eighth Circuit’s opinion vacating the August 1, 2013 fee award; (3) CRST’s brief  resisting the Rule 60(b) Motion; and (4) CRST’s briefs on remand as required by the Eighth Circuit’s now vacated decision with respect to the fees awarded for claims dismissed on summary judgment.  Id. at *6-7.  The EEOC argued that CRST’s application for fees was untimely and that CRST could not demonstrate that any of the actions that the EEOC took with respect to the requested categories of fees were frivolous, unreasonable or groundless.  The EEOC further argued that the fees sought by CRST were unreasonable.

Regarding timeliness, the District Court accepted the EEOC’s argument and held that CRST’s motion for a supplemental fee award was filed more than 120 days after the latest final judgment for which CRST requests attorneys’ fees.  Regarding the EEOC’s argument that the fees sought by CRST were unreasonable, the District Court similarly found in favor of the EEOC, noting that neither its appeal of the District Court’s fee award to the Eighth Circuit nor CRST’s appeal to the Supreme Court were amenable to fees.  Id. at *12-13.  Accordingly, the District Court denied CRST’s motion for a supplemental fee award.

Implications For Employers

Although the formerly $4.7 million fee sanction against the EEOC was reduced to $1.9 million, this is nonetheless a major victory for employers.  This ruling will serve as a cautionary tale for the EEOC when it attempts to speed through its mandatory pre-suit duties in rushes to the courthouse to litigate claims.  For employers who are blindsided by such EEOC tactics, this ruling can be used as precedent to hold the Commission accountable when it abandons its pre-suit duties required under Title VII.

Readers can also find this blog post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.

Interference On The Defense? Tenth Circuit Reinstates EEOC’s Formerly Dismissed Claim

Posted in EEOC Litigation

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis:  After a federal district court dismissed the EEOC’s unlawful-interference claim against a private college that had sued a former employee for allegedly breaching a settlement agreement by filing an EEOC charge, the Tenth Circuit reversed the dismissal of the EEOC’s unlawful-interference claim, citing the employer’s introduction of a new case theory relative to the EEOC’s still-pending retaliation claim.

This ruling serves a cautionary tale for employers regarding the timing of their assertion of new case theories in EEOC litigation involving multiple claims.

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After CollegeAmerica resolved a dispute with a former employee by entering into a settlement agreement, upon belief that the employee breached the settlement agreement, CollegeAmerica sued the employee in state court.  Id. at *1-2.  Thereafter, the EEOC sued CollegeAmerica in federal court alleging that CollegeAmerica’s interpretation and enforcement of the settlement agreement was unlawfully interfering with statutory rights of the former employee and the EEOC.  Following the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado’s dismissal of the EEOC’s claim for unlawful-interference with statutory rights, on appeal in EEOC v. CollegeAmerica Denver Inc., No. 16-1340, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17094 (10th Cir. Sept. 5, 2017), the Tenth Circuit reversed the dismissal, holding that the EEOC’s unlawful-interference claim should not have been dismissed as moot in light of a new theory asserted by CollegeAmerica prior to its trial regarding the EEOC’s pending retaliation claim.

Employers should keep this ruling in mind when preparing trial theories that may have implications on claims that had previously been dismissed as moot.

Case Background

The EEOC brought a claim for unlawful-interference with statutory rights, which the District Court ultimately dismissed as moot.  Regarding the EEOC’s retaliation claim, which remained for trial, CollegeAmerica presented a new theory against the employee: that she had breached the settlement agreement by reporting adverse information to the EEOC without notifying CollegeAmerica.  In response, the EEOC argued that by presenting this new theory, CollegeAmerica was continuing to interfere with the statutory rights of the former employee and the EEOC.  As such, the EEOC appealed the dismissal of its unlawful-interference claim, arguing that the claim was no longer moot in light of CollegeAmerica’s new theory.

The Tenth Circuit’s Decision

The Tenth Circuit reversed the dismissal of the of the EEOC’s unlawful-interference claim.  First, the Court instructed that in determining whether a claim is moot, a special rule applies when the defendant voluntarily stops the challenged conduct.  Id. at *4-5.  When the conduct stops, the claim will be deemed moot only if two conditions exist: (1) it is absolutely clear the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur, and (2) interim relief or events have completely and irrevocably eradicated the effects of the alleged violation.  In arguing that the case was moot, CollegeAmerica submitted two declarations from its general counsel assuring that CollegeAmerica would not take the “positions known to trouble the EEOC.”  Id. at *6.  In response, the EEOC argued that the declarations should not be relied upon since CollegeAmerica presented a new theory after the filing of the declarations–that the employee had breached the settlement agreement by reporting adverse information to the EEOC without notifying CollegeAmerica–an argument that continued CollegeAmerica’s unlawful interference with statutory rights.  The Tenth Circuit held that because CollegeAmerica planned to present its new theory in its state court suit, the potential for CollegeAmerica to repeat its allegedly wrongful behavior remained, and CollegeAmerica thus did not satisfy its burden of demonstrating the absence of a potential for reoccurrence.  Id.

Next, the Tenth Circuit rejected CollegeAmerica’s argument that the case was moot because the outcome “would not affect anything in the real world.”   Id. at *7.  The Tenth Circuit noted that in its state court suit, CollegeAmerica planned to argue that the employee breached the settlement agreement by reporting adverse information to the EEOC without notifying CollegeAmerica. The EEOC alleged that this argument would constitute unlawful-interference with the employee’s rights, and thus sought a permanent injunction prohibiting CollegeAmerica from unlawfully interfering with the statutory rights of the employee and the EEOC.  The Tenth Circuit accepted the EEOC’s argument, holding that if the EEOC prevailed on the merits and obtained an injunction, CollegeAmerica could not present its new theory in the state court suit against the employee, which “would constitute an effect in the real world.”  Id.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit declined to consider CollegeAmerica’s argument that the EEOC’s unlawful-interference claim brought under 29 U.S.C § 626(f)(4) failed as a matter of law since it could not be used as an affirmative cause of action, noting the District Court had not yet ruled on the issue and therefore it was to consider that issue on remand.  Id. at *7-8.  The Tenth Circuit also refused to consider CollegeAmerica’s argument that the EEOC sought overly broad, unauthorized injunctive and declaratory relief, explaining it would not consider this issue since it was raised on appeal for the first time.  Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit reversed and remanded the District Court’s dismissal of the EEOC’s unlawful-interference claim.

Implications For Employers

For employers facing litigation, this ruling provides an important lesson: when considering the defense of one claim, it is imperative to be cognizant of how that argument can impact the defense of another claim, even if the other claim has been dismissed.  Further, this decision illustrates the EEOC’s willingness to combat employers who bring causes of action against former employees who may have breached settlement agreements by asserting discrimination claims.  As such, employers should be cautious when suing former employees who later file EEOC charges, and must exercise further caution when considering how their strategies to defend one claim may affect another.

Readers can also find this blog post on our Workplace Class Action Blog here.

Summary Judgment Denied For Employer Who Circulated Letter About Employee’s Disability Discrimination Charge

Posted in Motions for Summary Judgment

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis:  After an employer circulated a letter to 146 employees discussing an employee’s EEOC Charge that alleged discrimination on the basis of his disability in violation of the ADA, a federal district court in Connecticut denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment.

This ruling provides valuable lessons for employers on the risks of widespread internal communication regarding pending EEOC charges.

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In EEOC v. Day & Zimmerman NPS, Inc., Case No. 15-CV-1416, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133918 (D. Conn Aug. 22, 2017), a Day & Zimmerman NPS, Inc. (“DZNPS”) employee filed a charge with the EEOC alleging that DZNPS violated the ADA by denying him a reasonable accommodation.  As part of its investigation of the Charge, the EEOC sought information from DZNPS, including the names and contact information of other DZNPS employees.  Prior to providing the requested information to the EEOC, DZNPS sent a letter to approximately 146 employees that identified the Charging Party by name, and noted that he had filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.  The EEOC alleged that by sending the letter, DZNPS retaliated against the employee for filing a charge with the EEOC in violation of the ADA and interfered with the Charging Party and letter recipient employees’ exercise and enjoyment of rights protected by the ADA.

As we previously blogged about here, the Court previously denied DZNPS’s motion to dismiss.  After the EEOC filed a motion for partial summary judgment on its interference claim under the ADA, and DZNPS filed a motion for summary judgment as to the Complaint in its entirety, Judge Victor A. Bolden of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment.

For employers considering whether to communicate internally about the pending EEOC charges, this ruling illustrates they should be careful to avoid creating the perception that they are retaliating against employees who bring charges or interfering with other employees’ rights to file future charges.

Case Background

In or around the fall of 2012, DZNPS hired 147 temporary electricians, including the Charging Party, who was a member of Local 35 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (“Local 35”).  Id. at *4.  After the Charging Party began training for the position, he provided a doctor’s note to a DZNPS representative indicating that he could not work around radiation.  The note requested a reasonable accommodation.  After receiving the doctor’s note and the request for a reasonable accommodation, DZNPS terminated the Charging Party’s employment.

In October 2012, the Charging Party filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, alleging that DZNPS failed to accommodate his disability reasonably and unlawfully terminated his employment.  Id. at *5.  In March 2014, the EEOC sought information from DZNPS as part of its investigation of the employee’s charge, including the names and contact information of other electricians who had worked for DZNPS at the Millstone Power Station in Waterford, Connecticut in the fall of 2012.

In June 2014, before providing the requested information to the EEOC, DZNPS sent a letter to approximately 146 individuals, all of whom were members of Local 35 and all of whom had worked or continued to work for DZNPS.  Id. at *6-7.  In the June 2014 letter, DZNPS identified the allegedly aggrieved employee by name and indicated that he had filed a charge of discrimination on the basis of disability.  The letter identified his union local, the medical restrictions on his ability to work, and the accommodation he had requested.  It further informed the recipients of their right to refuse to speak to the EEOC investigator, and offered them the option to have DZNPS counsel present if they chose to speak to the EEOC.

The EEOC moved for partial summary judgment on its interference claim under the ADA.  DZNPS moved for summary judgment as to the Complaint in its entirety, arguing that: (1) the EEOC’s legal theories would violate DZNPS’s free speech rights under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution; (2) that the June 2014 letter is protected by the litigation privilege under Connecticut law; (3) that the EEOC cannot, as a matter of law, make out a claim for retaliation under the ADA; (4) that the EEOC cannot, as a matter of law, make out a claim for interference under the ADA; and (5) that the EEOC lacks standing to bring this case under Article III of the United States Constitution.

The Court’s Decision

The Court denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment.  First, the Court rejected DZNPS’s claim that the EEOC lacked Article III standing to bring the case because no punitive or compensatory damages were available to the EEOC.  Id. at *13-14.  The Court noted that DZNPS cited to no legal authority supporting that proposition.  DZNPS also argued that if the Court found that its sending of the letter was either retaliation or interference in violation of the ADA, then the Court would be establishing a content and speaker-based restriction on speech that violated the First Amendment.  The Court rejected this argument on the basis that DZNPS identified no authority supporting its argument that the First Amendment protects speech from a defendant if that speech gives rise to liability under the ADA or other employment discrimination statutes.  Id. at *16-19.  Further, after analyzing Gulf Oil Co. v. Bernard, 452 U.S. 89 (1981), and subsequent cases interpreting Gulf Oil, the Court held that the Gulf Oil line of cases did not prevent courts from imposing restrictions on employer communications in situations where those communications could amount to “coercion” or prevent employees from exercising their rights.  Id. at *20-22.

Turning to the ADA retaliation claim, DZNPS argued that there was no genuine dispute of material fact that the EEOC would not be able to establish the third and fourth prongs of the prima facie case of retaliation under the ADA, either an adverse employment action or a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action.  Id. at *26-28.  DZNPS also argued that, even if the EEOC showed a genuine dispute of material fact as to the prima facie case for retaliation, the EEOC did not rebut DZNPS’s legitimate non-retaliatory reasons for sending the letter.  The Court found that when an employer disseminates an employee’s administrative charge of discrimination to the employee’s colleagues, a reasonable factfinder could determine that such conduct constitutes an adverse employment action.  In regards to DZNPS’s proffered legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for sending the letter, to “minimize business disruption” and notify the recipients that DZNPS had disclosed their “home telephone numbers and addresses . . . to the EEOC,” the Court found that a reasonable jury could also conclude that DZNPS’s explanation was pretextual because the letter did not need to explain that recipients need not speak to the EEOC investigator and that counsel for DZNPS could be present if the recipient chose to speak to the EEOC.  Id. at *34.

Finally, the Court addressed both parties’ motion for summary judgment on the ADA interference claim.  Id. at *35-39.  The EEOC argued that DZNPS interfered with the rights under the ADA of all the letter recipients because a reasonable jury would need to conclude that the letter had a tendency to chill recipients from exercising their rights under the ADA.  Citing its previous order denying DZNPS’s motion to dismiss, where the Court held that the disclosure of sensitive personal information about an individual could well dissuade that individual from making or supporting a charge of discrimination under the ADA, the Court found that a reasonable jury could conclude that the letter could have the effect of interfering with or intimidating the letter’s recipients with respect to communicating with the EEOC about possible disability discrimination by DZNPS.  Accordingly, explaining that because this question should be reserved for the jury, the Court denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment.

Implications For Employers

For employers considering whether to internally disclose information on a widespread basis regarding charges of discrimination filed by employees, this ruling should serve as a cautionary tale.  Further, it illustrates how widespread internal communication regarding such charges could potentially be viewed as retaliation or interference under the ADA in the context of motions for summary judgment.  As such, employers should exercise caution when considering when and to whom it should internally disclose information about pending administrative charges.

Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.

EEOC’s Motion For Sanctions Granted Over Employer’s Failure To Preserve And Produce Records

Posted in EEOC Litigation

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: In an EEOC lawsuit alleging that an employer failed to reasonably accommodate its Muslim employees’ requests for prayer breaks, a federal court in Colorado granted the EEOC’s motion for sanctions — as a result of the employer’s failure to preserve and produce various records — and barred the employer from presenting evidence, testimony, or arguments that unscheduled prayer breaks led to production line slowdowns or stoppages.  This ruling provides an important lesson for businesses regarding the preservation of documents in ongoing EEOC litigation.

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In EEOC v. JBS USA, LLC, Case No. 10-CV-02103, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 122908 (D. Colo. Aug. 4, 2017), the EEOC alleged that JBS USA, LLC (“JBS”), a meat packing company, discriminated against its Muslim employees on the basis of religion by engaging in a pattern or practice of retaliation, discriminatory discipline and discharge, harassment, and denying its Muslim employees reasonable religious accommodations.  After the EEOC moved for sanctions regarding JBS’s failure to produce two types of records relating to delays on JBS’s production line, Judge Phillip A. Brimmer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado granted in part the EEOC’s motion and barred JBS from presenting evidence, testimony, or argument in its motions, at hearings, or at trial that unscheduled prayer breaks led to production line slowdowns or stoppages.

For employers involved in government enforcement litigation, this ruling serves as a cautionary tale regarding the importance of preserving and producing relevant records, and that the failure to do so might cost employers the ability to later use such records in their defense.

For more information on this lawsuit (and a similar Nebraska case where JBS successfully obtained summary judgment), see our blog posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Case Background

JBS operates a beef processing plant in Greeley, Colorado.  Id. at *2.  During the first week of Ramadan 2008, a dispute occurred between JBS and its Muslim employees over their opportunities to pray, resulting in hundreds of Muslim employees walking off the job.  On September 10, 2008, JBS fired 96 Muslim employees that refused to return to work.  After the mass termination, numerous former employees filed discrimination charges with the EEOC.  Id.  In response, on February 3, 2009, JBS submitted a position statement where it argued that granting prayer breaks to employees would be an undue burden, in part, due to losses resulting from “each minute of production down-time.”  Id.  JBS continued to assert its undue burden affirmative defense throughout the case, for instance, arguing in its summary judgment motion that production line slowdowns and downtime would have been caused by allowing prayer breaks to Muslim employees.

The EEOC sought discovery from JBS about its undue burden affirmative defense.  Relevant here, on November 21, 2012, the EEOC served a production request regarding the production of all reports or data showing all dates and times the fabrication lines on any and all shifts were stopped, as well as the speed of the lines.  In response, JBS produced documents that included records showing scheduled breaks, but did not provide or reference the Down Time Reports or Clipboards, which show unplanned downtime and slowdowns.  The EEOC thereafter moved for sanctions for the loss or destruction of documents directly relevant to JBS’s allegations of undue hardship.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted the EEOC’s motion for sanctions.  While JBS had produced Clipboards from 2012-2016 and Down Time Reports from 2016, it claimed that all others had been destroyed.  JBS later testified via Rule 30(b)(6) deposition that the Down Time Reports were shipped to storage each year, but may have been destroyed.  After searching its warehouse for “a day” in 2017,  JBS later located and produced some additional records.  Id. at *6.  The Court thus found that JBS failed to supplement its production with responsive records in a timely manner.  The Court held that because JBS did not show that its failure to supplement was substantially justified or harmless, it would impose sanctions pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(c)(1).  Id.

Next, the Court explained that spoliation occurs when a party loses or destroys evidence that it had a duty to preserve because it was relevant to proof of an issue at trial in current or anticipated litigation.  Id. at *7 (citation omitted).  JBS argued that it did not have a duty to preserve these documents because it had no way of knowing or anticipating that the EEOC would be interested in knowing the specific time of every instance of every day that the production line stopped for an unplanned or unexpected reason.  The Court rejected this argument, holding that JBS ignored the fact that it asserted an undue burden defense within a year of the September 2008 incident and after charges of discrimination had been filed against it.  As such, the Court held that JBS had a duty to preserve documents relevant to the burden posed by the proposed accommodations.  Id. at *8 (citation omitted).

Arguing that the lack of production of records did not cause a prejudice to the EEOC, JBS stated that the records did not show whether any slowdown or stoppage was related to a prayer break because the information they contained was “only as specific as the information known to the person filling out the Down Time Report.”  Id. at *10.  The Court rejected this argument, holding that “[r]ecords such as those sought, which potentially show the actual impact of unscheduled employee prayer breaks, are particularly important to understanding the impact such breaks would have on production line slowdowns or stoppages because they would provide contemporaneous records of whether unscheduled breaks led to production downtime.”  Id. at *12.  Accordingly, the Court found that the EEOC was prejudiced by JBS’s spoliation of evidence.  Id.

In fashioning a sanction that “appropriately addresses the prejudice to the EEOC resulting from JBS’s spoliation or failure to produce the records and is proportional to JBS’s culpability,” the Court held that it would bar JBS from presenting evidence, testimony, or argument in its motions, at hearings, or at trial that unscheduled prayer breaks led to production line slowdowns or stoppages.  Id. at *14.  The Court explained that this sanction was “tailored to the evidence lost, destroyed, or withheld by JBS because it alleviates the prejudice which the EEOC would otherwise suffer, namely, that JBS may present evidence of stoppages through witnesses, but the EEOC would not be able to rebut such testimony with records that would likely prove whether stoppages actually occurred and, perhaps, for what reason.”  Id.  Accordingly, the Court granted in part the EEOC’s motion for sanctions for the loss or destruction of documents.

Implications For Employers

An employer’s likelihood of defeating a workplace class action is often dependent on its ability maintain and preserve thorough employment records.  Here, the employer’s failure to preserve records that ultimately could have helped establish an affirmative defense resulted in the Court limiting the employer from using certain types of evidence in its defense of the litigation.  This sanction should serve as a cautionary tale for employers in regards to complying with the written discovery process, as employers are best-positioned to defeat workplace class actions when they have as many defenses as possible in their arsenal.

Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.

More “Mark of the Beast” – Fourth Circuit Affirms Denial Of Employer’s Post-Verdict Motions In EEOC’s Anti-Christ Discrimination Case

Posted in EEOC Litigation

finger-150x112By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Fourth Circuit recently affirmed a U.S. District Court’s denial of three post-verdict motions brought by an employer in an EEOC religious discrimination case alleging a failure to accommodate an employee’s Anti-Christ fears. The case is an interesting read for any employer involved in religious discrimination issues.

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Most religious accommodation lawsuits brought by the EEOC against employers concern mainstream religions. But when the EEOC successfully sues an employer for failing to accommodate an employee’s Anti-Christ fears, employers need to pay attention, especially when that cases involves a jury verdict awarding over $586,000 in total damages (as we blogged about here).

In EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., No. 16-1230, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 10385 (4th Cir. June 12, 2017), the EEOC alleged that the defendants (“Consol”) refused to provide an employee with a religious accommodation by subjecting him to a biometric hand scanner for purposes of clocking in and out of work.  The employee believed the hand scanner was used to identify and collect personal information that would be used by the Christian Anti-Christ, as described in the New Testament Book of Revelation, to identify followers with the “mark of the beast.”  Following a jury verdict in favor of the EEOC, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia denied Consol’s renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b), motion for a new trial under Rule 59, and motion to amend the Court’s findings and conclusions under Rule 59.  Following the employer’s appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

With the Fourth Circuit affirming the District Court’s ruling after an eyebrow-raising EEOC jury trial victory, it behooves the interests of employers to consider any and all religious accommodation requests.

Case Background

In the summer of 2012, Consol implemented a biometric hand-scanner system at the mine where the employee worked, in order to better monitor attendance and work hours. Id. at *4.  The scanner system required each employee checking in or out of a shift to scan his or her right hand; the shape of the right hand was then linked to the worker’s unique personnel number.  While Consol implemented the scanner to produce more efficient and accurate time reporting, the employee alleged it presented a threat to his core religious commitments.

As the employee consistently and unsuccessfully sought an accommodation that would preclude him from having to clock in with the scanner, Consol meanwhile allowed employees with injured hands to scan in using a different keypad system.  Id. at *7.  Eventually, the employee decided to retire in lieu of using the hand-scanner, and later found a lower paying job.  The EEOC thereafter brought an enforcement action against Consol on behalf of the employee, alleging a failure to accommodate religious beliefs and constructive discharge.  Id. at *9.  After the case ultimately proceeded to trial, the jury found Consol liable for failing to accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs.  The jury awarded $150,000 in compensatory damages and $436,860.74 in front and back pay and lost benefits.  Id. at *10-11.  Consol then filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b), a motion for a new trial under Rule 59, and a motion to amend the Court’s findings and conclusions under Rule 59.  The District Court denied all three post-verdict motions, and Consol appealed.  Id. at *11.

The Fourth Circuit’s Decision

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s denial of Consol’s three post-verdict motions.  First, Consol challenged the denial of its renewed motion for a judgment as a matter of law, arguing that the District Court erred in concluding that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict against it.  Consol argued that it did not fail to reasonably accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs because there was in fact no conflict between his beliefs and its requirement that he use the hand scanner system.  The Fourth Circuit rejected this argument, noting that in both the employee’s request for an accommodation and his trial testimony, the employee carefully and clearly laid out his religious objection to use of the scanner system.  Id. at *13.

Next, regarding the District Court’s denial of its motion for a new trial under Rule 59, Consol raised a handful of objections that primarily related to the District Court’s exclusion of evidence and various issues related to jury instructions.  Id. at *20.  The Fourth Circuit noted that it would “ respect the [D]istrict [C]ourt’s decision absent an abuse of discretion, and will disturb that judgment only in the most exceptional circumstances.”  Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).  Further, it opined that, “[w]hen, as here, a new trial is sought based on purported evidentiary errors by the district court, a verdict may be set aside only if an error is so grievous as to have rendered the entire trial unfair.”  Id.  Applying this standard, the Fourth Circuit found that the District Court did not abuse its discretion.  Regarding the jury instructions, the Fourth Circuit held that the District Court properly found that Consol failed to show any prejudice arising from any of the instructions at issue.  Id. at *26.

Finally, both parties cross-appealed the District Court’s rulings on lost wages and punitive damages.  The Fourth Circuit rejected Consol’s argument that the employee failed to adequately mitigate his damages by accepting a lower paying job, noting that whether a worker acted reasonably in accepting particular employment is preeminently a question of fact, and that it would not second-guess the District Court.  The Fourth Circuit also rejected the EEOC’s cross-appeal regarding punitive damages, holding that the district court did not err in concluding that the EEOC’s evidence fell short of allowing for a determination that Consol’s Title VII violation was the result of the kind of “reckless indifference” necessary to support an award of punitive damages.  Id. at *34.  Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s denial of Consol’s three post-verdict motions.

Implications For Employer

While it makes sense from a practical standpoint for employers to foster a work environment that is respectful of its employees’ religious beliefs, this ruling demonstrates that employers should also be tolerant of their employees’ religious accommodation requests for legal and financial reasons.  And although many employers will likely never encounter an employee requesting a religious accommodation to cope with his or her fear of the Anti-Christ, they nonetheless must seriously entertain any and all religious accommodation requests.  Equipped with an Appellate Court affirmation of its jury trial verdict, the EEOC may very well likely “smell blood” in the sea of religious discrimination charges in its backlog.  As such, the best practice for employers is to take a respectful and thoughtful approach to religious accommodation requests to avoid potential EEOC litigation and sometimes unforgiving juries.

Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.

Sixth Circuit Signs Off On EEOC Subpoena In UPS Disability Discrimination Case

Posted in Investigation Tactics and Administrative Subpoenas

magnifier-1714172__340By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The Sixth Circuit recently affirmed a U.S. District Court’s decision granting the EEOC’s application to enforce a subpoena in a disability discrimination investigation, finding that company-wide information regarding the employer’s use and disclosure of medical information was relevant to the investigation of a single employee’s charge of discrimination. The ruling underscores the challenges faced by employers in objecting to EEOC subpoenas.

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As we discussed in recent blog posts (here, here, and here), the EEOC has been aggressive in issuing expansive subpoenas that seek company-wide information from employers, as opposed to limiting the subpoena to seek information about an individual charging party.  In the latest round of EEOC versus employer subpoena litigation, in EEOC v. United Parcel Service, Inc., No. 16-2132, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 10280 (6th Cir. June 9, 2017), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a decision of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granting the EEOC’s application to enforce a subpoena that sought company-wide information, even though investigation concerned a single employee’s charge of discrimination.

This ruling provides yet another example of courts setting the bar low when considering what is “relevant” for purposes of the scope of an EEOC subpoena.  As such, employers can and should expect the EEOC to continue to be aggressive in firing off far-reaching subpoenas as it investigates high-stakes systemic discrimination claims.

Case Background

A UPS operations manager filed an EEOC charge claiming that UPS discriminated and retaliated against him in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”).  Id. at *1-2.  In particular, he claimed that UPS published confidential medical information about him and other employees on its intranet page.  Id. at *2.  The EEOC began an investigation into the employee’s claims, which resulted in the Commission issuing a subpoena that requested information about how UPS stored and disclosed employee medical information.  UPS opposed the subpoena, claiming that the requested information was irrelevant to his charge.  The EEOC thereafter filed an application to enforce the subpoena.  The District Court granted the EEOC’s application, and UPS appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

The Sixth Circuit’s Decision

The Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s grant of the EEOC’s application to enforce the subpoena.  First, the Sixth Circuit explained that a subpoena enforcement proceeding is a summary process designed to expeditiously decide whether a subpoena should be enforced, and that the purpose is not to decide the merits of the underlying claim.  Id. at *4 (citation omitted).  Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in McLane v. EEOC, 137 S. Ct. 1159, 1170 (2017), which we blogged about previously here, the Sixth Circuit further instructed that it would review the District Court’s decision to enforce the subpoena under an abuse of discretion standard.  Id.

After noting that in the Title VII context the Sixth Circuit has held that the EEOC is entitled to evidence that focuses on the existence of patterns of racial discrimination in job classifications or hiring situations other than those that the EEOC’s charge specifically targeted, the Sixth Circuit opined that it saw “no reason to hold differently with respect to discrimination on the basis of disability.”  Id. at *5 (citations omitted).  Further, “so long as a charge alleges unlawful use of medical examinations and inquiries, evidence of patterns of such unlawful use is relevant to the charge under investigation.”  Id.  UPS argued that the EEOC was only entitled to information regarding similarly-situated employees.  The Sixth Circuit rejected this argument, noting that there was no such restriction under the ADA.   Id.

UPS further argued that the EEOC’s requested information was overbroad because the databases referenced in the EEOC’s subpoena contained information about employees from other regions in the United States and Canada, including one database where the Charging Party’s information never appeared.  The Sixth Circuit rejected this argument, noting that the breach of confidentiality that the employee described in his amended charge was not limited to himself since he alleged that “all other employees subject to Health and Safety incident action/reports have had their confidentiality breached in the same manner as me.”  Id. at *6.  The Sixth Circuit further determined that the EEOC was entitled to search for evidence that showed a pattern of discrimination other than the specific instance of discrimination described in the charge.  Id.

Turning to UPS’s argument that the amended charge was not valid because it “appears to have been amended for an illegitimate purpose — to obtain documents that the subpoena otherwise could not reach,” the Sixth Circuit held that UPS forfeited this argument since it did not raise it before the District Court.  Id.  Further, the Sixth Circuit rejected UPS’s argument that the EEOC’s subpoena was overbroad because it provided no temporal scope, noting that regardless of when UPS developed the criteria for posting content on its intranet site, this piece of evidence may provide insight into how UPS categorizes information as confidential.  Id. at *7.  Finally, the Sixth Circuit dismissed UPS’s argument that producing the requested information would be unduly burdensome, noting that UPS did not identify how producing the requested evidence would be difficult, especially considering that both parties acknowledged it could be produced electronically.  Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit held that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in ordering UPS to comply with the subpoena, and it affirmed the District Court’s decision.  Id. at *7-8.

Implications For Employers

Armed with yet another decision holding that an expansive EEOC subpoena was relevant to an investigation, the further emboldened EEOC likely will continue to seek far-reaching, company-wide information in its investigations, including those that stem from a single employee’s charge of discrimination.  Despite this recent trend of unfavorable rulings, employers should not let their guard down when confronted with broad EEOC subpoenas.  Rather, employers must carefully scrutinize each EEOC subpoena and aggressively attack its relevance when appropriate.

Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.

Sixth Circuit Shuts Down EEOC’s Appeal In Sex Harassment Suit

Posted in Motions for Summary Judgment

armor-158430__340By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by the EEOC, the Sixth Circuit affirmed a U.S. District Court’s grant of an employer’s motion for summary judgment after finding that the harassing employee was not a supervisor under Title VII, and therefore the company was not vicariously liable for his actions. It is a decidedly pro-employer ruling.

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In EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc., No. 16-6387 (6th Cir. June 9, 2017), the EEOC alleged that AutoZone was liable under Title VII for a store manager’s alleged sexual harassment of three female employees.  After the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, the EEOC appealed.  The Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment, finding that because the store manager did not take any tangible employment action against his co-workers and had no authority to do so, he was not a supervisor under Title VII, and thus AutoZone was not vicariously liable for the conduct alleged.  The Sixth Circuit further held that even if the store manager was found to be a supervisor under Title VII, AutoZone established an affirmative defense to liability.

For employers facing EEOC lawsuits alleging that they are vicariously liable for sexual harassment claims brought against employees with managerial job titles, yet who have limited authority to take tangible employment actions, this ruling can be used as a blueprint to attack such claims in motions for summary judgment.

Case Background

In May 2012, AutoZone transferred a store manager to its Cordova, Tennessee location.  Id. at 2.  The store manager could hire new hourly employees and write up employees at the store for misbehaving, but could not fire, demote, promote, or transfer employees.  Authority over firing, promoting, and transferring rested with the district manager for the store.

After an employee claimed that the store manager made lewd comments to her, AutoZone internally investigated the allegations.  As part of AutoZone’s internal investigation, two other female employees who worked at the Cordova location confirmed that the store manager made lewd sexual comments.  Despite his denial of the allegations, AutoZone ultimately transferred and terminated the store manager.  Thereafter, the EEOC brought a lawsuit alleging that AutoZone subjected the three female employees to sexual harassment.  Following discovery, AutoZone moved for summary judgment.  The District Court granted AutoZone’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the store manager was not a supervisor under Title VII and therefore AutoZone was not vicariously liable for his actions.  The EEOC appealed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment to the Sixth Circuit.

The Sixth Circuit’s Decision

The Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s grant of AutoZone’s motion for summary judgment.  First, the Sixth Circuit instructed that under Title VII, if the harassing employee is the victim’s co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions, or in other words, if the employer knew or should have known of the harassment yet failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.  Id. at 4 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).  However, if the harasser is the victim’s supervisor, a non-negligent employer may become vicariously liable if the agency relationship aids the victim’s supervisor in his harassment.  Id.  The Sixth Circuit further explained that an employee is a “supervisor” for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim.  Id.

Applied here, the Sixth Circuit found that AutoZone did not empower the store manager to take any tangible employment action against his victims since he could not fire, demote, promote, or transfer any employees.  Id. at 5.  Further, the Sixth Circuit held that the store manager’s ability to direct the victims’ work at the store and his title as store manager did not make him the victims’ supervisor for purposes of Title VII.  The Sixth Circuit also noted that while the store manager could initiate the disciplinary process and recommend demotion or promotion, his recommendations were not binding, and his ability to influence the district manager did not suffice to turn him into his victims’ supervisor.  Id. at 5-7.  Finally, the Sixth Circuit held that the store manager’s ability to hire other hourly employees was irrelevant since he did not hire the employees he harassed.  Id. at 7.

After finding that the store manager was not a supervisor for purposes of Title VII, the Sixth Circuit further held that even if he was found to be a supervisor, AutoZone established an affirmative defense to liability.  The defense has two elements: (1) that the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any sexually harassing behavior; and (2) that the harassed employees unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise.  Id.  The Sixth Circuit held that AutoZone met the first element by utilizing an appropriate anti-harassment policy to prevent harassment, and by transferring and later terminating the store manager promptly after it investigated the allegations.  Regarding the second element, the Sixth Circuit held that AutoZone satisfied this prong since the victims failed to report the store manager’s behavior for several months.  The Sixth Circuit thus held that AutoZone established an affirmative defense to liability.  Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s grant of AutoZone’s motion for summary judgment.  Id. at 10.

Implications For Employers

Employers often utilize employees that may be “managers” in title, yet do not have the authority to take tangible employment actions.  When those employers are sued by the EEOC for the conduct of managers with limited authority, this ruling can be used to argue that such employees are not “supervisors” under Title VII, and therefore the employer is not vicariously liable for their actions.  Nonetheless, given the EEOC’s aggressiveness in attempting to use the theory of vicarious liability to hold “deep-pockets” large-scale employers liable for the conduct of employees, employers would be prudent to invest in harassment-prevention training to minimize the likelihood of such behavior occurring.  But in the event that such incidents of harassment arise and lead to EEOC lawsuits, employers can use this decision to tailor their arguments to focus on the authority of the harasser, as opposed to his or her job title.

Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.

Following U.S. Supreme Court Review, Ninth Circuit Remands EEOC Subpoena Case

Posted in Investigation Tactics and Administrative Subpoenas

 

100px-US-CourtOfAppeals-9thCircuit-Seal_svgBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Christopher J. DeGroff and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: After the U.S. Supreme Court clarified in McLane Co. v. EEOC, No. 15-1248, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 2327 (U.S. 2017), that the scope of review for employers facing EEOC administrative subpoenas was the abuse-of-discretion standard, a relatively high bar of review, the Ninth Circuit applied that standard of review on remand and vacated the District Court’s original decision that denied the enforcement of an EEOC subpoena.

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An often contentious issue in EEOC investigations involves the scope of administrative subpoenas, which can be burdensome for employers when the subpoenas seek a broad range of company-wide information.  When analyzing the standard of review for decisions relating to the enforcement of EEOC subpoenas, in McLane Co. v. EEOC, No. 15-1248, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 2327 (U.S. Apr. 3, 2017), the U.S. Supreme Court held that such decisions were examined under an abuse-of-discretion standard.  The abuse-of-discretion standard sets a relatively high bar for review, as we blogged about here.  Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s remand to the Ninth Circuit in McLane, the Ninth Circuit vacated the District Court’s denial of enforcement of the subpoena and sent the matter back to the District Court for further proceedings.  EEOC v. McLane Co., No. 13-15126, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 9027 (9th Cir. May 24, 2017).

For employers, this is an important case to follow as it provides clarification as to the standard of review used when Appellate Courts address district court subpoena enforcement decisions.

Background

The EEOC issued an administrative subpoena as part of its investigation into a charge of discrimination filed by a former employee of a McLane subsidiary.  Id. at *3.  The employee alleged that McLane discriminated against her on the basis of sex when it fired her after she failed to pass a physical capability strength test.  Relevant here, the subpoena requested “pedigree information” (name, Social Security number, last known address, and telephone number) for employees or prospective employees who took the test.  Following the Court’s precedent at the time, the Ninth Circuit applied a de novo review to the District Court’s ruling that the pedigree information was not relevant to the EEOC’s investigation.  Id. at *3-4.  The U.S. Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s judgment after holding that a district court’s decision whether to enforce an EEOC subpoena should be reviewed for abuse of discretion.  The U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit so that the Ninth Circuit could re-evaluate the District Court’s ruling under the proper standard of review.

 The Ninth Circuit’s Decision On Remand

After reviewing the District Court’s decision under the abuse-of-discretion standard, the Ninth Circuit still held that the District Court abused its discretion by denying enforcement of the subpoena.  Id. at *4.  The District Court found that the pedigree information was not relevant “at this stage” of the EEOC’s investigation because the evidence McLane had already produced would “enable the [EEOC] to determine whether the [strength test] systematically discriminates on the basis of gender.”  Id.  The Ninth Circuit rejected this approach, noting that the District Court’s ruling was based on the wrong standard for relevance.  The Ninth Circuit stated that under Title VII, the EEOC may obtain evidence if it relates to unlawful employment practices and is relevant to the charge under investigation.  Quoting EEOC v. Shell Oil Co., 466 U.S. 54, 68-69 (1984), the Ninth Circuit opined that the relevance standard encompasses “virtually any material that might cast light on the allegations against the employer.”  Id. at *5.

Applying Shell Oil, the Ninth Circuit found that the pedigree information was relevant to the EEOC’s investigation since conversations with other McLane employees and applicants who have taken the strength test “might cast light” on the allegations against McLane.  Id.  McLane argued that, given all of the other information it had produced, the EEOC could not show that the production of nationwide pedigree information was relevant to the Charge or its investigation under either a disparate treatment or disparate impact theory.  Id. at *6. The Ninth Circuit construed the District Court’s application of relevance to be a heightened “necessity” standard, and noted that the governing standard was “relevance,” not “necessity.”  Id.

The Ninth Circuit then found that the District Court erred when it held that pedigree information was irrelevant “at this stage” of the investigation.  Id.  Rejecting the District Court’s conclusion that the EEOC did not need pedigree information to make a preliminary determination as to whether use of the strength test resulted in systemic discrimination, the Ninth Circuit held that the EEOC’s need for the evidence—or lack thereof—did not factor into the relevance determination.  Id. at *6-7. While McLane had argued that the pedigree information was not relevant because the charge alleged only a “neutrally applied” strength test, which by definition cannot give rise to disparate treatment, systemic or otherwise, the Ninth Circuit rejected this approach, holding “[t]he very purpose of the EEOC’s investigation is to determine whether the test is being neutrally applied; the EEOC does not have to take McLane’s word for it on that score.”  Id. at *7.  Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit held that because the District Court based its ruling on an incorrect view of relevance, it necessarily abused its discretion when it held that the pedigree information was not relevant to the EEOC’s investigation.

The Ninth Circuit concluded by noting that on remand, McLane was free to renew its argument that the EEOC’s request for pedigree information was unduly burdensome.  Id. at *8. Further, explaining that it did not reach the issue in its original decision, the Ninth Circuit instructed that “[o]n remand, the district court should also resolve whether producing a second category of evidence — the reasons test takers were terminated — would be unduly burdensome to McLane.”  Id.  Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit vacated the District Court’s judgment and remanded for further proceedings.

Implications For Employers

As employers who are confronted with EEOC subpoenas may ultimately find themselves in a subpoena enforcement action, the McLane case is a must-follow in terms of what standard of review will be applied if those district court decisions are later reviewed.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s adoption of the more “hands off” abuse-of-discretion standard means that greater weight will be given to district court decisions.  Nonetheless, the Ninth Circuit’s ruling here illustrates that appellate courts may still be willing to overturn district court decisions to enforce or quash EEOC subpoenas depending on the circumstances.  The decision will also, no doubt, be cited by an emboldened EEOC as authority for its position that expansive pedigree information is relevant in a broad swath of cases.  Understanding these trends will provide useful guidance for employers when deciding if and how to challenge what often can be burdensome demands for information from the EEOC.

Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.

Dueling Fifth Circuit Panel Deadlocks, No Rehearing For Bass Pro In “Big Fish” EEOC Case

Posted in EEOC Litigation

bassBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Christopher J. DeGroff, and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: After a Fifth Circuit decision affirming a ruling by a U.S. District Court in Texas allowed the EEOC to seek compensatory and punitive damages in its high-profile Title VII pattern or practice race discrimination lawsuit against Bass Pro, a deadlocked Fifth Circuit denied Bass Pro’s petition for a rehearing en banc.  The highly contentious dissenting opinion, which prompted a response from the panel in favor of denying the rehearing, is a must-read for employers regarding judicial views on the damages the EEOC can seek in Title VII pattern or practice of discrimination litigation.

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One of the EEOC’s largest pending nationwide lawsuits, a Title VII pattern or practice race discrimination case concerning retailer Bass Pro’s hiring practices, has resurfaced in an appeal.  In EEOC v. Bass Pro Outdoor World LLC, No. 15-20078, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 7628 (5th Cir. Apr. 28, 2017), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit was tasked with deciding whether to grant Bass Pro’s petition for a rehearing en banc after it previously affirmed a decision of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas allowing the EEOC to seek compensatory and punitive damages by bringing claims under § 706 and 707 of Title VII.  Evident in a pair of pull-no-punches opinions, the Fifth Circuit panel of judges was deadlocked in a 7-7 split on whether to grant the rehearing, thus resulting in Bass Pro’s petition being denied.

As employers continue to challenge the EEOC’s willingness to stretch the bounds of pattern or practice Title VII litigation, the highly contentious dissenting opinion (“Dissent”), and equally provocative response from the panel in favor of denying the rehearing (“Panel”), are must-reads for employers.

Case Background

As we have discussed in previous blog posts (here, here and here), the EEOC brought a lawsuit alleging discriminatory hiring practices in violation of Title VII on behalf of a group of individuals allegedly discriminated against on the basis of their gender or race, both as a representative action (under § 706) and based on a pattern or practice theory (under § 707).  The Dissent noted that the 50,000 allegedly aggrieved individuals, Black and Hispanic applicants, was a number “asserted [by the EEOC] in shotgun fashion, with no development or refinement of who or where the individuals are.”  Id. at *4.  Further, the Dissent explained that “[t]he EEOC, after a three-year investigation, could identify zero discriminatees or even potential discriminatees. Upon being pressed by the [D]istrict [C]ourt, the EEOC identified about 100, and later, about 200, of the 50,000 mass.”  Ultimately, the District Court allowed the EEOC to pursue pattern or practice claims on behalf of the 50,000 claimants under § 706, seeking individualized compensatory and punitive damages.  On June 17, 2016, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision.  Bass Pro thereafter filed an interlocutory appeal.  Id. at *5.

The Fifth Circuit’s Decision

As a result of a 7-7 split between the circuit judges, the Fifth Circuit denied Bass Pro’s petition for a rehearing en banc.  The Dissent initially summarized its argument by matter-of-factly noting “this ‘pattern or practice’ case cannot be brought under § 706 or § 707 as to provide individualized compensatory and punitive damages for a mass of 50,000 persons.”  Id. at *6.  In support of this assertion, the Dissent argued that the plain language and legislative history of the Title VII forbids § 706 “pattern or practice” suits, and the Panel’s contrary holding rendered § 707 of the Act a meaningless appendage to Title VII and hence superfluous.  Second, the Dissent argued that allowing pattern or practice suits for individualized compensatory and punitive damages poses insurmountable manageability concerns, which the Supreme Court has addressed before and rejected such suits.  Finally, the Dissent opined that allowing pattern or practice suits for individualized compensatory and punitive damages for the 50,000 allegedly aggrieved individuals necessarily ran afoul of the Seventh Amendment.

After the Dissent pointedly advocated this array of arguments, the Panel countered with a 16 page response, asserting that Bass Pro ignored “the independent role of the EEOC when it sues on behalf of the United States government . . . [and] asks us to hold as a matter of law that damages authorized by the 1991 amendments to the Civil Rights Act can only be recovered in individual suits.”  Id. at *20-21.  After clarifying the role of the EEOC in light of the 1991 amendments of the Civil Right Act of 1964, the Panel opined that, “Bass Pro’s argument rests upon a fundamental premise: that the EEOC’s enforcement authority and choice of remedies is tethered to the individuals for whose benefit it seeks relief. That premise is false.”  Id. at *23.  The Panel then argued that because the EEOC brought suit under both § 706 and 707, Bass Pro’s argument that the Commission was not entitled to punitive damages failed because it “would be truly perverse to withhold the remedy of punitive damages from the EEOC when it targets discrimination in its most virulent and damaging form: polices intentionally calculated to exclude protected minorities and perpetrated on a large scale.”  Id. at *35.

Finally, the Panel addressed Bass Pro’s argument that even if Congress did grant the EEOC the authority to seek compensatory and punitive damages via the pattern-or-practice model, this grant of authority was unconstitutional.  Noting that Bass Pro’s argument appeared to implicate due process concerns under the Seventh Amendment, the Panel held that Bass Pro’s reliance on Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011), was misplaced as that case involved Rule 23 class actions, which  have “no force” in EEOC litigation.  Id. at *36.  After providing a hypothetical analysis as to how a jury may award various types of damages, the Panel concluded by finding Bass Pro’s manageability concerns to be unfounded, and its “claim that this suit cannot be tried is not a statement of fact but an advocate’s prayer.  Seeking to limit its exposure to liability, Bass Pro asks us to shut down this lawsuit before it even gets off the ground.”  Id. at *41-42.

Not to be outdone, the Dissent threw the final punch in a two paragraph dissent to the Panel’s response.  In an effort to clarify the procedural uniqueness of the Panel’s response to the dissenting opinion, the Dissent noted “[l]est there be any mistake, the [P]anel’s ‘response’ must not be confused with a binding opinion on the denial of an en banc petition, because no authority authorizes any such opinion.”  Id. at *42.  As such, the Dissent concluded by instructing that in no way should the Panel’s response be treated as precedential.

Implications For Employers

The Fifth Circuit’s ruling is certainly unfavorable for employers, as this gives the EEOC ammunition to seek a broad range of damages under § 706 and 707, and essentially pick and choose which section’s procedures it wants to follow at various stages of the litigation.  But when reading the tea leaves within the tenaciously written opinions by the divided panel, employers can find encouragement in that many judges – both in the Fifth Circuit and throughout the country – support the Dissent’s belief that the EEOC conflated its rights under § 706 and 707.  As such, employers should continue to follow this case and similar large-scale EEOC pattern or practice cases, which will likely continue to percolate following this government-friendly ruling.

Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.