In EEOC v. Global Horizons Inc., No. 11-CV-00257 (D. Haw. Nov. 8, 2012), the EEOC attempted to force a square peg into a round hole by transforming headline grabbing allegations of human trafficking into a Title VII pattern or practice case; even more problematic is that the EEOC attempted to argue that there is no applicable statute of limitations that applies to the §707 pattern or practice claims it asserted in the case. However, Judge Alan Ezra of the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii recently dismissed a significant portion of the EEOC’s allegations, holding that the EEOC’s claims for alleged unlawful employment actions under § 707 must adhere to the 300-day limitations period set forth by § 706 of Title VII. Applying this critical limitation on the EEOC’s pattern or practice claims, Judge Ezra dismissed all of the EEOC’s claims seeking relief for employment practices occurring more than 300-days before the filing of the underlying administrative charge.

Facts Of The Case

The EEOC alleged that a manpower agency, Global Horizons Inc., with the help of the agricultural companies and farms with which it contracted, engaged in a litany of unlawful and potentially criminal acts, including many alleged violations that do not necessarily implicate the proscriptions of Title VII (e.g., human trafficking, confiscation of passports, the provision of substandard housing, and wage and hour violations, etc.). The EEOC further alleges that – in engaging in these criminal acts – Global harassed, discriminated against, and retaliated against a class of similarly-situated Thai H-2A guest workers based on their race and national origin in violation of Title VII, and that the farm defendants with whom Global contracted, should be held joint and severally liable for Global’s Title VII violations because they “either engaged in, knew of, or should have known of” Global’s alleged conduct.

In 2011, the farm defendants filed motions to dismiss the EEOC’s complaint, arguing, among other things, that the 300-day statute of limitations should apply to all of the EEOC’s pattern or practice claims pursuant to §707 of Title VII.  On November 2, 2011, Judge Ezra rejected the defendants’ arguments, and held that the EEOC is not constrained by a statute of limitations period in a pattern or practice case. At that time, Judge Ezra was not alone. Courts were divided on the issue of whether § 706 applies to the EEOC’s § 707 pattern or practice claims. Since that time, however, over a dozen federal courts have issued rulings in harmony with the farm defendants’ arguments. In fact, since the Court issued its November 2011 ruling, every federal court that has address this question has held that the statute of limitations set forth in § 706 applies to the EEOC’s § 707 pattern or practice claims (see our discussion of some of those cases here, here, here, and here). 

Defendants in the case had one more shot to attack the issue. Global Horizons, having appeared in the action later than other defendants, recently filed a motion to dismiss all claims in the EEOC’s complaint arguing, among other issues, employment decisions made more than 300-days before the filling of the administrative charge must be dismissed. Relying on the growing cases from district courts across the country, the farm defendants filed a substantive joinder to Global Horizon’s motion to dismiss, arguing specifically that the trend in court opinions has been to apply the 300-day statute of limitations period to the EEOC in pattern or practice cases.   

The Court’s Ruling

In Judge Ezra’s last ruling before transferring the case to another district court judge, he agreed with Global Horizons and the farm defendants in concluding that the plain language of § 706’s 300-day limitations period does apply to § 707 pattern or practice claims brought by the EEOC. The Court explained that under the law of the case doctrine, it is not precluded from “reversing its previous position and finding that § 707 pattern-or-practice claims are subject to § 706’s statute of limitations.” Id. at 30. Thus, the Court reversed its previous position and held that the “EEOC is, in fact, constrained by the time limitation” set forth in § 706. Id. at 31 (emphasis in original).

Implications For Employers

This ruling is a required read for anyone litigating against the EEOC. Although Judge Ezra’s ruling is an issue of first impression before the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii, it joins a litany of recent rulings that have similarly rejected the EEOC’s efforts to litigate claims filed beyond the 300-day limitations period. Only two years ago, district courts were split on the issue of whether the charge-filing period of § 706 applies to pattern or practice cases brought by the EEOC under § 707. Slowly – but steadily – each new decision addressing this issue tilts the split in favor of employers. The recent ruling in EEOC v. Global Horizons joins a harmony of recent decisions that apply the plain language of § 707 and therefore bar the EEOC from seeking relief for any conduct that occurred more than 300-days prior to the filing of an administrative charge. Although no circuit court has weighed in on this issue, it is only a matter of time – so, stay tuned.

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