By Christopher DeGroff, and Reema Kapur
We previously reported that the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) secured a verdict of $240 million in its lawsuit against Hill Country Farms last week. Read our previous blog post here.
The EEOC trumpeted the verdict in a post-trial press release, but did not reveal the fact that the verdict would be reduced due to the caps in the applicable law at issue in the case. We noted that the verdict would be reduced due to statutory damages caps applicable to claims brought under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). On May 14, 2013, the Court did just that and entered an order reducing the jury award for all thirty two claimants to $1.6 million. The Court’s May 14 Order, in addition to its previous award of back wages in the amount of $1.3 million, drastically reduces the total recovery in this case to $2.9 million. In the same order, the Court set the case for a further hearing on June 10, 2013 to address the EEOC’s request for injunctive relief.
The post-trial briefing in EEOC v. Hill Country Farms case is an example of the aggressive tactics and push-the-envelope arguments that employers facing EEOC-initiated litigation can encounter.
We discussed the background of this case in previous posts (here and here).
On May 1, a jury awarded $240 million to thirty two intellectually disabled workers in connection with the EEOC’s claims that Hill Country Farms, their employer, discriminated against them and subjected them to a hostile work environment. Following the verdict, the Court invited briefing from defendant and the EEOC regarding the appropriate judgment award to be entered in the case.
Damages Caps Under The ADA
The ADA imposes a statutory cap — a ceiling — of $50,000 for each claimant in cases where an employer-defendant has more than 14 but fewer than 101 employees. The $50,000 limit is inclusive of compensatory and punitive damages.
Here, given the size of Hill Country Farms’ workforce at the time of the alleged violations, the “maximum allowable” recovery with respect to each claimant was $50,000, for a total recovery of $1.6 million for all claimants, plus “applicable prejudgment interest.” The Court will determine the proper amount of prejudgment interest at the June 10 hearing.
EEOC’s Request For Injunctive Relief
The EEOC is also seeking injunctive relief. To prove that it is entitled to an injunction, it must show that there is a “threat of irreparable harm” in connection with further violations by Hill Country Farms. However, Hill Country Farms reportedly went out of business in February 2009. So the EEOC will need to convince the Court that injunctive relief is necessary to stop a defunct business that has not employed anyone since 2009 from engaging in future violations of employment laws. The President of Hill Country Farms allegedly admitted at trial that although the company is no longer in business, it remains a “corporation in good standing in the State of Texas.” In other words, while the corporation is no longer operating a business and has no workforce, it remains a legal entity. Thus, the EEOC is maneuvering around the company’s current defunct status by arguing that Hill Country Farms or a successor company could “potential[ly] return to full operations or re-initiat[e]…the business.” If (and when) it resumes operations, the EEOC wants an injunction in place.
Because the potential “threat” that the defendant may resume or re-incorporate a business may occur “any time in the future,” EEOC is requesting ongoing and permanent future injunctive relief. For instance, the EEOC has requested injunctive relief provisions requiring that the defendant must notify the EEOC in writing if (1) the company or its principals or owners “engage in business at any time in the future” of any type or (2) the company or a successor company resumes business activities “similar to those conducted by Hill Country Farms.”
Further, if the company ever resumes business, the EEOC is seeking an order imposing a variety of obligations — including training, reporting, and hiring a mental health professional as a consultant — for five years.
Implications For Employers
It will be interesting to see if the Court accepts the EEOC’s novel argument in favor of injunctive relief in this case, and how it treats the defendant’s arguments opposing the propriety and scope of the relief. Stay tuned.