In an issue of first impression before the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Judge Nora B. Fischer in EEOC v. United States Steel Corporation, et al., No. 10-CV-1284 (W.D. Pa. July 23, 2012), granted, in part, Defendant’s motion to dismiss, and held that the EEOC must adhere to § 706’s 300-day limitations period relative to its § 707 pattern or practice allegations. The Court expressly rejected the EEOC’s attempt to dodge the limitations period on its claims that the Defendant violated the ADA when it applied a nationwide policy of requiring probationary employees to undergo random alcohol tests. Although Judge Fischer barred the EEOC from seeking relief for individuals who were subject to an alcohol breath test and/or termination for more than 300 days before the filing of the discrimination charge, she denied Defendant’s motion as to the EEOC’s remaining charges; however, she did so with caveats, and without the benefit of a full evidentiary record.
Taken together, Judge Fischer’s ruling strikes at the heart of the EEOC’s initiative to litigate pattern or practice disability discrimination charges in a broad fashion unrestrained by any statute of limitations. The ruling is welcome news for employers, especially those who experience claims, settlement demands, or litigation where the EEOC asserts claims that are sweeping in nature and disregard the 300-day limitations period. The decision also takes a place in the growing list of rulings that reject the EEOC’s position on this important procedural point.
Facts Of The Case
The EEOC filed a Title VII enforcement action against the Defendant under § 706 and § 707. Citing one example where Defendant required an employee to undergo a random breath alcohol test during her probationary period and allegedly fired the employee as a result of such test, the EEOC claimed that Defendant engaged in a pattern or practice of disability discrimination by maintaining a nationwide procedure of requiring probationary employees to undergo random alcohol tests. Id. at 2. In support of its claim, the EEOC alleged that the Defendant did not have a reasonable basis for subjecting the employees to the random tests.
The Defendant filed its motions to dismiss the EEOC’s amended complaint arguing, among other things, that the EEOC’s claims of discrimination were time barred. Id. at 6. Defendant contended that the EEOC ignored the procedural safeguards set forth in § 706, which provide that an administrative charge be filed within 300 days after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred. Id. at 8 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1)). Defendant contended that the 300-day limitation period applied to the EEOC’s charges because the plain language of § 707 states that, “all pattern or practice actions shall be conducted in accordance with the procedures set forth in § 706[.]” Id. at 8 (internal citations omitted). Defendant also argued that the Court should dismiss the EEOC’s claims under the pleading structure set forth in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 662 (2009), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009). Specifically, Defendant asserted that the EEOC failed to “specifically plead that it . . . met its statutory pre-suit obligations to investigate, issue reasonable cause findings and conciliate its clams, or to name any of the presently unidentified aggrieved employees who make up the purported class.” Id. at 14-15.
The Court’s Ruling
The Court noted that, “no clear trend has emerged in District Courts that have addressed the issue” of whether § 706’s 300-day limitations period is applicable to the EEOC’s pattern or practice allegations. Id. at 9. Citing to – and siding with – 11 other federal courts that have recognized the 300-day procedural requirement, Judge Fischer applied the plain language of § 706 and reasoned that “any claims of discrimination based on events that occurred before August 10, 2007 (which is 300 days before the June 6, 2008 charge that gave rise to EEOC’s instant lawsuit) are time barred, and should, therefore, be dismissed.” Id. at 11. Additionally, the Court refused to apply the continuing violations doctrine to the EEOC’s claims – which creates an equitable exception to the statute of limitations – because “random breath alcohol tests constitute discrete acts[.]” Id. at 14.
At the same time, the Court refused to dismiss the EEOC’s remaining claims under the Supreme Court’s standards set forth in Iqbal and Twombly. Id. at 14. The Court reasoned that the EEOC sufficiently plead all conditions precedent to the suit because it is not required to allege specific factual matters, as Defendant maintained. Id. at 15-16 (citing Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 9(c)). The Court also held that “Iqbal and Twombly do not require the EEOC to name all of the potential class members in its Amended Complaint,” a topic on which we have blogged previously here, here, and here. Id. at 19.
In an important caveat, the Court determined that it was premature to determine whether the EEOC satisfied all of its statutory pre-suit obligations because the Court had not yet considered all of the evidence outside of the pleadings. Id. at 19. Thus, the Court found that even though the EEOC’s claims were subject to Title VII’s 300-day statute of limitations, the Commission could proceed with its remaining litigation. This leaves the door open for Defendant in this case to re-assert these arguments at the summary judgment stage.
Implications For Employers
The Court’s ruling in EEOC v. United States Steel Corporation clarifies important distinctions between § 706 and § 707 actions, and adds another ruling to the list of employer-friendly decisions that require the EEOC to adhere to the 300-day limitations period in litigating pattern or practice lawsuits. In that respect, it should be tucked away for future use by corporate counsel and all employers facing EEOC litigation claims.
Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action Blog here.