In EEOC v. Northern Star Hospitality, Inc., No. 12-CV-214 (W.D. Wis.), a case we have blogged about previously here, Judge Barbara B. Crabb of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin imposed contempt sanctions on an employer for failure to cooperate in post-judgment discovery and granted the EEOC’s request for attorneys’ fees for the time it spent bringing the contempt motion.
The ruling is a cautionary tale for employers, and shows how the EEOC can seek attorneys’ fees despite the fact that its attorneys do not bill a client, and demonstrates that the EEOC will pursue collection of even small judgments against unsuccessful defendants.
Dion Miller, an African-American, was a cook for Northern Star Hospitality, Inc. d/b/a Sparx Restaurant (“Sparx”). On October 1, 2010, when Miller arrived at Sparx to begin his shift, a co-worker told him to look in the kitchen cooler. In the cooler was a one-dollar bill with a noose drawn around President Washington’s neck and a sketch of a hooded Klansman on horseback with “KKK” written on the hood. Also in the cooler was a picture of the late Gary Coleman.
Miller had a co-worker take a photograph of the display in the cooler and lodged a complaint with the restaurant’s general manager. The general manager learned that two of Miller’s superiors – the kitchen manager and kitchen supervisor – admitted that they were responsible for the display. As a result of the complaint, the kitchen supervisor was given a warning, with the kitchen manager receiving no discipline at all.
After Miller’s complaint, the kitchen manager and supervisor began to criticize Miller’s performance. Miller was then terminated less than one month after the display was put up.
On March 27, 2012, the EEOC filed suit against Sparx on Miller’s behalf, claiming that he was the victim of racial harassment and that he was wrongfully terminated for opposing that harassment. On February 25, 2014, after a jury verdict in favor of the EEOC, the Court entered a $64,795.50 judgment against Sparx. That judgment was upheld by the Seventh Circuit on January 29, 2015.
After the judgment was affirmed, the EEOC served interrogatories on Sparx, seeking information about its assets. Deeming Sparx’s responses insufficient, the EEOC moved to compel Sparx to provide adequate answers to its interrogatories and for attorneys’ fees expended in seeking adequate interrogatory answers. The Court granted the motion on June 16, 2015, ordering Sparx to provide further interrogatory answers and to pay the EEOC attorneys’ fees for time spent preparing the motion to compel.
Despite the order, Sparx failed to pay the EEOC’s fees and failed to provide updated interrogatory answers. On July 27, 2015, the EEOC moved for sanctions for contempt of the Court’s order on the motion to compel. It also sought attorneys’ fees for the time it spent preparing the motion for a finding of contempt.
The Court’s Ruling
The Court granted the EEOC’s motion for a finding of contempt. It ordered Sparx to pay a $1,000 per day fine starting three days following the finding of contempt for each day Sparx did not provide updated interrogatory answers and did not pay the EEOC’s fees for the motion to compel. It further awarded the EEOC $1,000 in fees for the two-and-a-half hours it spent drafting the motion for a finding of contempt.
Implications For Employers
This case will provide further support for the EEOC’s position that, despite the fact its attorneys do not bill any client for their time, it should be entitled to attorneys’ fees in the right circumstances. Moreover, the case indicates that the EEOC will pursue judgments, no matter how small, that it has won.
Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.