Joining a growing line of cases reflecting judicial intolerance for questionable litigation tactics, the recent ruling in EEOC v. American Somoa Government, et al., No. 11-CV-00525 (D. Haw. Oct. 5, 2012), rejected the EEOC’s “shoot first, aim later” tactics and granted partial summary judgment to the employer. During the investigation and conciliation process, the EEOC only identified two employees on whose behalf it sought monetary relief. Nonetheless, during discovery, the EEOC sought information regarding all 5,000 of the Defendant’s employees. Id. at 12. The Defendant objected to the EEOC’s broad discovery tactics, noting that the EEOC gave it reason to believe that its purported “class” only consisted of the two named employees within the Department of Human Resources. The Court agreed, and held that the EEOC impermissibly attempted to expand its claims through discovery and determined that “its investigation was limited to age discrimination claims [within the Department of Human Resources] and it may not use this lawsuit as a fishing expedition to uncover more violations.” Id. at 22 (internal quotations omitted).
This dispute arose after a former American Samoa Government (“ASG”) employee, Eseneiaso Liu, filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC, alleging, among other things, that the Defendant discriminated against her on the basis of age. Id. at 3. Specifically, Ling claimed that the Director of the ASG’s Department of Human Resources “announced in a staff meeting that all employees (50 years and older) should retire and let the younger generation take over their jobs.” Id. at 4. Liu claimed that the Director subsequently reassigned her position and placed a younger male in her previous position. Id. at 4.
As part of the EEOC’s investigation into the matter, the Commission interviewed eight of the Defendant’s employees within the Department of Human Resources. During the interview process, the EEOC uncovered another employee, Manuia Lacumbra, who believed that the Director transferred her to a less desirable position due to her age and then filled her position with a younger employee. Id. at 6. The EEOC also sought various documents from the Defendant, all of which related only to the employees and policies within the Department of Human Resources. Id. at 7-8. After the Defendant produced the requested information, conciliation efforts commenced. During the conciliation process, the EEOC only sought monetary relief on behalf of Liu as the charging party, and Lacumbra as the purported class member. Id. at 8. As to remedial relief, the EEOC requested, among other things, “an effective anti-discrimination and harassment policy and reporting procedure [that] shall be issued annually to all . . . employees[.]” Id. at 9.
Ultimately, conciliation efforts failed and the EEOC filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii. In its complaint, the EEOC only identified Liu and Lacumbra as claimants. Yet, during discovery, the EEOC attempted to cast a wider net by seeking information relating to all of the Defendant’s employees “i.e., its 5,000 employees spanning the ASG’s thirty-three departments.” Id. at 12. The Defendant filed a motion for partial summary judgment, asserting that the EEOC’s pre-litigation efforts only provided it with notice of age discrimination claims within the Department of Human Resources. In other words, the Defendant asserted that the EEOC did not provide it with sufficient notice of the potential scope of its claims and therefore, all claims beyond the scope of the Department of Human Resources must be dismissed. Id. at 14.
The Court’s Ruling
The Court first recognized that “the EEOC’s investigation must occur within the scope of the charge — that is, it must reasonably grow out of the charge underlying it, [and] a lawsuit must be like or reasonably related to the underlying EEOC charge.” Id. at 16 (internal citations omitted). Thus, the Court drew a line in the sand and stated that the scope of the EEOC’s permissible claims was limited by what the EEOC’s investigation uncovered and the issues that the EEOC conciliated. Id. Because the EEOC only investigated and conciliated alleged acts of age discrimination within the Department of Human Resources, the Court held that the EEOC did not sufficiently provide the Defendant notice that it would use discovery devices to uncover government-wide claims. Id. at 19. The Court noted the specific downfalls in the EEOC’s pre-suit tactics: “the EEOC did not seek information regarding whether the [Director’s] reassignment of Liu and Lacumbra could be tied to a larger ASG policy, and did not seek information regarding any other departments within the ASG.” Id. at 20. The Court reasoned that the scope of the EEOC’s conciliation efforts were similarly limited to the Department of Human Resources because it only sought monetary relief on behalf of Liu and Lacumbra. Id. at 21. Thus, the Court rejected the EEOC’s attempt to use broad discovery to identify additional class members.
The Court relied on and reinforced the explosive ruling in EEOC v CRST Van Expedited, Inc., 257 F.R.D. 513 (N.D. Iowa 2010), rev’d in part, 679 F.3d 657 (8th Cir. 2012), in which the EEOC similarly stonewalled an employer in explaining who it sought to represent; that tactic ultimately resulted a $4.5 million fee sanction against the Commission in that Iowa case. We have blogged about EEOC v. CRST on numerous occasions, available here, here, here, and here. As in EEOC v. CRST, in this case, the Court held that the EEOC’s discovery net was limited to the scope of the EEOC’s pre-litigation efforts and, the EEOC could “not use [its] lawsuit ‘as a fishing expedition’ to uncover more violations.” Id. at 22 (citing EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc., 679 F.3d 657 (8th Cir. 2012).
Implications Of The Decision
The ruling in has a significant impact for American Somoa because the Court dismissed what could have resulted in hundreds of claims, leaving in place only the EEOC’s specific claims against the Defendant for age discrimination within the Department of Human Resources. As for a broader impact, employers can continue to rely on EEOC v. CRST, and now EEOC v. American Samoa for the proposition that the EEOC must identify potential “class” members before filing suit. This is good news for employers, who have a strong argument that the EEOC cannot use discovery in litigation to identify new claims and claimants.
Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.