By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Christopher J. DeGroff, Matthew J. Gagnon and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth SynopsisOn November 15, 2018, the EEOC released its annual Performance and Accountability Report (‘PAR”) for Fiscal Year 2018 (here) – a year-end report card of sorts, and a critical publication for employers to consider as they analyze the EEOC’s activities over the past year, and its anticipated direction for the future.

In its first year under the Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2018 through 2022 (“Strategic Plan” or “Plan”) (blogged about here), the EEOC reported significant increases in its outreach efforts and enforcement actions, as it highlighted new intake procedures, extensive training programs, and aggressive litigation.  Particularly noteworthy was the EEOC’s track-record relative to workplace sexual harassment litigation, which has become a top priority as the #MeToo movement has spotlighted the issue. 

The 2018 PAR is a “must read” for corporate counsel, as it provides valuable insights into the agency’s mission, as well as warnings that employers should heed. 

Raking In Recoveries

In FY 2018, the EEOC recovered more than $505 million for alleged discrimination victims.  This represents a significant jump from $484 million in FY 2017 (see more here), and $482.1 million in FY 2016 (see more here).  But while the total monetary relief figure ballooned, the relief obtained through mediation, conciliation, and settlement declined from $355.6 million in FY 2017 to $354 million in FY 2018.  Conversely, litigation recoveries jumped to $53.6 million in FY 2018 from $42.4 million in FY 2017 (the FY 2016 and 2015 numbers were $52.2 million and $65.3 million respectively, more closely mirroring this year’s figures).

Firing Up The Filings

The EEOC reported filing 199 merits lawsuits in FY 2018, a slight uptick from the 184 merits lawsuits it filed in FY 2017.  This included 117 suits on behalf of individuals, 45 non-systemic suits with multiple victims, and 37 systemic suits.  The EEOC labels a case “systemic” if it “has a broad impact on an industry, company or geographic area.”

For employers, the 37 systemic lawsuits is a particularly noteworthy figure.  In FY 2017, the Commission filed 30; in FY 2016 it filed 18; and in FY 2015 it filed 16.  The acceleration in systemic lawsuits illustrates that the EEOC is not backing down on its agenda of aggressively litigating “bet-the-company” cases.  Given the heightened financial exposure in systemic litigation, this is one trend employers should certainly heed.

Making Its Mark In The #MeToo Movement

Workplace harassment has never been more in the forefront of the EEOC’s focus than it is today.  The EEOC’s PAR emphasized that it reconvened the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace for a public meeting, “Transforming #MeToo into Harassment-Free Workplaces,” to examine difficult legal issues and to share innovative strategies to prevent harassment.  The Commission reported that it recovered a whopping $70 million for the victims of sexual harassment through administrative enforcement and litigation in FY 2018, up dramatically from $47.5 million in FY 2017.  Unquestionably, given the increased visibility of workplace sexual harassment based on various high-profile media coverages in 2018, the Commission has turned up the heat on investigations and litigation in this area.

Balancing The Backlog

For several years, the EEOC has been working through its significant backlog of pending charges.  As EEOC Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic noted in the PAR, “[s]oon after I became Acting Chair in 2017 I made addressing the backlog a priority, and as an agency, we began to share strategies that have been particularly effective in dealing with the pending inventory, while ensuring we are not missing charges with merit.”  Chair Lipnic has made good on her word, noting the EEOC dramatically reduced its pending inventory in FY 2018 to 49,607 charges, a decrease of 19.5% from FY 2017 and 34% from FY 2015.  One area that remains ripe for improvement, however, is the backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests, as the PAR reports that the EEOC’s FOIA backlog increased by 185% at the end of FY 2017, but only decreased by 7% in FY 2018.

Portal To The Future

As part of its mission to facilitate the intake process, the launch of a nationwide online inquiry and appointment system as part of the EEOC’s Public Portal resulted in a 30% increase in inquiries and over 40,000 intake interviews.  These figures come as a result of the Commission’s recent commitment to enhance its Digital Charge System and allow technological advances to ease the burden caused by an increased volume of activity.

The Commission additionally noted that its outreach programs reached more than 398,650 workers, employers, their representatives and advocacy groups this past fiscal year at more than 3,900 events conducted by the EEOC.  This reflects the EEOC’s commitment to preventing workplace harassment through proactive measures, while simultaneously increasing public awareness about the mission of the Commission.

Implications For Employers

There were those who believed the EEOC’s enforcement efforts would downshift under the current administration.  Our year end reports, and the EEOC’s own PAR report card, demonstrates quite the opposite.  The EEOC has made it clear that it is ramping up across the board, not slowing down.  This includes a significant increase in filings, recoveries, and outreach efforts.  The EEOC’s PAR is a helpful resource for employers to chart the danger areas in today’s tumultuous political and social environment.  We will continue to report on the EEOC’s enforcement trends.  Stay tuned.

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

By: Mark Wallin, Christopher DeGroff, and Gerald Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The EEOC operates with limited resources, yet has the daunting responsibility of enforcing an alphabet soup of anti-discrimination laws.  The EEOC has become quite savvy at leveraging the press as a pulpit for publicizing its agenda, especially in litigation.  An employer need only visit the EEOC’s website to understand the role of media statement’s in the Commission’s enforcement process.

In the life-cycle of EEOC initiated litigation, the agency will almost invariably issue two media statements: one issued when the suit is filed, and another when the suit is resolved.  But not all media statements are the same.  Depending on the posture of the case, whether the case theories align with the EEOC’s strategic goals, and even how the EEOC views the employer, media statements can vary dramatically.  This post discusses what employers can expect from these releases, including typical language, elements, and timing.   

EEOC’s Publicity Philosophy

The EEOC has acknowledged that press coverage is part of its deterrent message and mission.  Notably, the Commission’s 2006 Systemic Task Force report provides that the “EEOC engage[s] in high impact litigation and publicity efforts that change the workforce status of affected groups and/or improve employment policies, practices, or procedures in affected workplaces.”  (See also opening statement of Sen. Alexander regarding the Commission’s apparent strategy, in filing certain lawsuits, to “achieve a maximum amount of publicity.”)

The EEOC’s litigation media statement is one of the tools in the Commission’s toolbox that it will wield with an aim to achieve its strategic enforcement goals.

Often Two Media Statements During The Course Of EEOC Initiated Litigation

In the life of a lawsuit initiated by the EEOC, there will ordinarily be two media statements. The first will be published when the suit is filed, and the second if the case is resolved.  Although all media statements published upon filing of a suit will have roughly the same cadence and tone, those published upon resolution can vary greatly.

Initial Media Statement

A media statement issued at the outset of the litigation tends to have a stern tone, regarding the alleged actions of the employer.  The statement will lead off with a general assertion of the legal claims lodged against employer, including the statute at issue.  For example, the statement may declare that a female employee suffered through a hostile work environment at the hands of her supervisor, in violation of Title VII.  The statement will then go on to recite the key allegations of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation proffered in the complaint.  These allegations are often delivered as fact, not issues that will be proven – or not – during the litigation.  Often times the statement will also describe the employer, perhaps sharing a website, states of operation, and a brief description of the work done by the business. Finally, the applicable District Director and/or one of the trial attorneys for the matter will offer a quote in the nature of a sound bite concerning the allegations, which will emphasize the Commission policy underlying its prosecution of the lawsuit.  In the most recent batch of EEOC filings, for instance, which occurred in September, combating sexual harassment and discrimination (“me too”) is the most common EEOC policy articulated. It is not surprising that many employers who have been the subject of the EEOC’s media statements have deemed the Commission’s tactics to be unfair and designed to apply extra-judicial pressure to settle litigation.

Media Statement Upon Resolution

When a suit is resolved, typically through an agreed upon consent decree (but occasionally after a rare trial win), the EEOC will publish yet another media statement.  The tone and content of this statement, however, can vary from highly aggressive to fairly measured, and can even verge on “friendly.”  The direction taken by the EEOC in this statement will depend largely on the resources devoted to the litigation, how contentious the litigation was, as well as whether the claims and allegations at issue align with the Commission’s strategic goals.  Some insight into the Commission’s process can be found in the Regional Attorney’s manual, published here. Notably, before the resolution of “significant litigation” a Regional Attorney is required to advise the Office of the General Counsel.  The Commission defines “significant” to mean a lawsuit “expected to involve significant monetary or injunctive relief”; “a favorable jury verdict or court decision”; or resolution which “is likely to receive national or significant local attention due to the notoriety of the defendant, ongoing media interest in the lawsuit and/or issues involved, or other factors that may have spurred significant media scrutiny.”  Whether or not the litigation is deemed “significant” may well play a role in the tone of the media release as well.

The more resources expended, and the more closely aligned the claims are with the Commission’s strategic goals, the more likely the EEOC will publish an aggressive media statement.  The hallmarks of such a statement will be not only the recitation of the most salacious of the allegations, but also a detailed description of the monetary and programmatic relief obtained in the consent decree.  For example, in a recent matter involving an Illinois restaurant, the EEOC’s media statement set forth that “numerous employees … were routinely sexually harassed by coworkers and managers, including offensive sexual comments, groping, physical threats, and, in one instance, attempted forced oral sex with a management employee.” The statement went on to detail the programmatic relief, followed by harsh admonishments from a Regional Attorney and District Director, specifically:

“Employers are responsible for preventing workplace harassment – and their failure to do so hurts both their employees and their bottom line,” said Andrea G. Baran, Regional Attorney for the EEOC’s St. Louis District. “Business owners and CEOs must be proactive and involved in making sure all managers and employees understand that harassment will not be tolerated, harassers will be punished, and those who report harassment will be protected from retaliation. Prevention starts at the top.”

Moving down the spectrum, the Commission may take a more measured tone where the litigation is less protracted and the claims are not necessarily consistent with its strategic goals. For instance, in a recent ADA case settled by the EEOC concerning an employer’s alleged discriminatory termination of a disabled employee, which had been pending less than a year, the media statement provided scant details concerning the claims brought. Further, after a short description of the programmatic relief contained in the lone statement of a Regional Attorney was far more benign:

“This settlement is both strong and just,” said Rudy Sustaita, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Houston District Office. “[The employer] has given us every indication that it intends to comply with the ADA in the future.”

And on occasion, it will even boarder on “friendly” — including a statement of appreciation to the employer for its cooperation in resolving the litigation. In a suit brought in Wisconsin, filed and settled within five months, the Commission was quoted as stating:

“We thank [the employer] for its commitment to settle this case before the sides incurred significant costs and its willingness to ensure a level playing field for its pregnant employees seeking job modifications, including light duty work, otherwise available to non-pregnant employees,” said EEOC Chicago Regional Attorney Gregory M. Gochanour. “The EEOC will continue to enforce the federal laws so that all pregnant employees have the same opportunities as non-pregnant employees to contribute to our thriving economy,” said Julianne Bowman, the EEOC’s District Director for the Chicago District Office.

Although “friendly” media statements are the exception, not the rule, the EEOC is more likely to publish such a statement to incentivize other employers to similarly resolve enforcement actions.

A Word On Conciliation Media Statements

Historically, the EEOC has generally issued media statements for lawsuits only, as conciliation is intended to be a confidential process.  Indeed, one of the chief reasons for employers to engage in pre-suit conciliation is the carrot of confidential resolution.  Interestingly, however, we have seen a trend of the EEOC issuing presumably agreed-upon media statement for matters settled in conciliation.  Accordingly, the employer has a degree of leverage in negotiating these publications.  As one might imagine, conciliation media statements are, thus, more positive in tone. Further, on occasion, the employer may also make a statement, which at minimum disclaims any liability — something rarely, if ever, allowed in a litigation media statement.

Elements Of A Media Statement

Regardless of the tone, EEOC media statements are consistent in their basic elements and structure.

First, there will be a headline crafted to be eye-catching, such as “Paramount Mailing Company Punished Female Employees for Complaining About Abuse, Federal Agency Charges.”  Below is a word cloud, highlighting the most common words and phrases employed by the EEOC in its 2018 headlines.  Not surprisingly, in the current environment, “Sexual” and “Harassment” play prominently.

Second, the media statement will include a statement of claims, describing the complained of discrimination, harassment, and/or retaliation, including factual and legal allegations.  The more aggressive press releases will set forth the most sensational and detailed allegations, whereas the measured versions may state the allegations in more bland terms, which can sometimes be so vague that it is difficult to divine what the claims were based upon in the first place.

Third, the Commission will include quotes from the relevant District Director and possibly a Regional Attorney involved in the litigation.  The tone of the EEOC’s quotes can vary greatly, depending on, among other things, the importance of the issue to the Commission’s strategic goals, the duration of the litigation, and resources expended.  Excluding conciliation media statements, on very rare occasions, the EEOC may allow a quote from the employer on the resolution of the lawsuit.  Although it is unlikely the Commission will agree to such a statement, if the litigation and settlement proceed amicably, it is certainly worth attempting to negotiate the point.

Finally, the media statement will conclude with a statement of the EEOC’s mission (e.g. “The EEOC advances opportunity in the workplace by enforcing federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination”).  Additionally, where applicable, the statement will indicate where the resolved litigation is among the EEOC’s strategic goals — “[p]reventing workplace harassment through systemic litigation and investigation is one of the six national priorities identified by the Commission’s Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP).”  Media statements that make note of the SEP are more likely to be among the more aggressive.

Emerging Issues With Media Statements

As the Commission media strategy has evolved, it has made continued efforts to increase its audience and distribution of these statements for maximum effect. The EEOC has also been known to conduct press conferences announcing a new suit or trumpeting an EEOC victory. But now the EEOC also publishes many of its media statements on social media, like Twitter.  It has also taken to issuing relevant media statements in multiple languages depending upon the employees and employer at issue. For as long as the EEOC places a priority on publicity, it will no doubt continue to search for new ways to increase their audience.

Implications for Employers

For employers who find themselves involved in an EEOC enforcement action, it is important not to lose sight of the Commission’s use of its media statement as both carrot and stick.  The EEOC places considerable value on shining a spotlight on its enforcement efforts, especially those which advance its strategic goals.  While it is unlikely that the Commission will allow the employer too much say in the issued statement, when negotiating resolution with the EEOC, where possible, employers should use the Commission’s goal of publicity as a possible bargaining chip to achieve the best possible outcome for the inevitable media statement.  Moreover, by understanding the Commission’s strategic goals, employers will gain a greater awareness of what tone and tenor the EEOC’s statement will take upon resolution, and can prepare accordingly.

 

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

By Christopher J. DeGroffMatthew J. Gagnon,  Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., and Kyla J. Miller

Seyfarth Synopsis: The uncertainty of a new administration’s impact on the EEOC that plagued FY 2017 is fading, but the results are not what some would expect. Not only has the EEOC brought a mountain of filings compared to the last four years, but also the agency has demonstrated a clear focus on sex-based discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace in light of #MeToo, even surpassing FY 2017 numbers.

With a full fiscal year under its belt, the Trump Administration’s impact on EEOC-initiated litigation is still uncertain. With two Republican Commissioners and the General Counsel position still unconfirmed, it is difficult to discern if things will truly be “business as usual” under Trump or if those appointments, once confirmed, will change agency course. One thing is certain: the EEOC’s litigation program is not slowing down any time soon. Just as the waning months of FY 2017 showed a marked increase in filings, FY 2018 turned up the heat even more. Filings are up more than ever, with sex discrimination filings and #MeToo filings – i.e., complaints of sexual harassment – eclipsing previous years.

The total number of filings in FY 2018 demolished FY 2015 and 2016, and even surpassed FY 2017. (Compare here to here and here). This year, the EEOC filed 217 actions, 197 merits lawsuits and 20 subpoena enforcement actions.

Predictably, the EEOC waited until the last minute to push filings, with this past month showing the most filings compared to any other month this fiscal year. At the time of publication, 84 lawsuits were filed in September, including 45 in the last 3 days alone.  Notable this year, however, was the “ramp up” period in June, July and August, which accounted for 63 of the total filings. Almost half of those cases were brought in August. The total filings for the remaining months remain low, with the number of filings in October through February failing to hit double digits.

Filings in Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles continue to top the charts, with 21, 21, and 17 total filings, respectively. These numbers remain relatively consistent to FY 2017, which showed 21 filings in Chicago, 19 in Philadelphia, and 22 in Los Angeles. On the lower end, the St. Louis and Memphis numbers were modest, with only 7 filings in St. Louis and 8 filings in Memphis. Of the remaining districts, the Phoenix and New York district offices rebounded after a slow FY 2017, each filing 6 more lawsuits in FY 2018 as compared to last year.

Sex Discrimination Takes Center Stage

Each fiscal year we analyze what substantive theories the EEOC is targeting. This year, Title VII claims remained the largest category of filings, on par with FY 2017, which boasted 53% of all filings. In FY 2018, Title VII filings accounted for 55% of all filings. Although FY 2016 showed a dip in Title VII filings at 41%, this year’s Title VII filings beat out FY 2015 and FY 2014 as well.

With a new Strategic Enforcement Plan in place to guide litigation activity for FY 2018-2022, many expected some shift in focus based on two notable changes from the old plan. Specifically, the new plan pledged to address discriminatory practices against those who are Muslim or Sikh, or individuals of Arab, Middle Eastern, or South Asian descent. Additionally, the new plan aims to expand the EEOC’s equal pay priority to include compensation discrepancies for race, ethnicity, age, and disability – moving beyond the EEOC’s focus on sex-based pay disparities. In fact, we have actually seen a decrease in Equal Pay Act filings, which could reflect the EEOC’s renewed focus on equal pay issues that affect other protected groups, which would not fall under the jurisdiction of the Equal Pay Act.

One trend has emerged this year – compared to FY 2017, race filings have decreased by 6 filings – with 18 filings in FY 2018 compared to 24 filings in FY 2017.

Perhaps the most striking trend of all is the substantial increase in sex-based discrimination filings, primarily the number of sexual harassment filings. As predicted, #MeToo added fuel to this area of the EEOC’s agenda, with 74% of the EEOC’s Title VII filings this year targeting sex-based discrimination. Compare this to FY 2017, where sex based discrimination accounted for 65% of Title VII filings. Of the FY 2018 sex discrimination filings, 41 filings included claims of sexual harassment. 11 of those filings were brought in the last three days of the fiscal year alone. The total number of sexual harassment filings was notably more than FY 2017, where sexual harassment claims accounted for 33 filings.

EEOC’s #MeToo Harassment Filing Surge

Implications For Employers

The dramatic increase in filings should be an eye-opener for employers in an era when many thought the EEOC might be hitting the brakes. Instead, the EEOC is increasing its enforcement activity, with a particular focus on sex discrimination and sexual harassment. The EEOC still strongly advises employers should update and aggressively enforce their EEO Policies. Now, more than ever, employers need to be on top of their game to avoid becoming the next target of EEOC-initiated litigation.

As most of our loyal readers know, this blog is merely a preview of the more extensive analysis of EEOC trends and developments affecting EEOC litigation that we publish at the end of the calendar year. Stay tuned for our in-depth analysis of FY 2018 filings, and particular danger areas for employers in this shifting political climate.

Readers can also find this blog post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: A federal district court in Kansas recently granted the EEOC’s motion for judgment on the pleadings in an ADA lawsuit brought against UPS and an employee union, holding that a policy in Defendants’ collective bargaining agreement where drivers who are disqualified for medical reasons can only be compensated at 90% of their rates of pay for temporary non-driving jobs, while drivers disqualified for non-medical reasons such as DWI’s are compensated at a 100% rate, was facially discriminatory.

This ruling should serve as a wake-up call to employers in regards to ensuring their policies relative to medical disqualifications and compensation are ADA-compliant.

***

Case Background

In EEOC v. UPS Ground Freight, Inc., No. 2:17-CV-2453, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 125625 (D. Kan. July 27, 2018), the EEOC brought suit under the ADA regarding UPS’s collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) with its employees’ union, which provided that for employees with CDL’s (commercial drivers’ license) whose CDLs are suspended or revoked for non-medical reasons, including convictions for driving while intoxicated, those employees would be reassigned to non-CDL required (non-driving) work at their full rate (100%) of pay. However, for drivers who become unable to drive due to medical disqualifications, including drivers who are individuals with disabilities within the meaning of the ADA, UPS provided full-time or casual inside work at only 90% of the rate of pay.

The EEOC argued that the language of the CBA established a prima facie case of a discriminatory policy because it paid drivers disqualified for non-medical reasons 100% of their pay rate, while paying drivers disqualified for medical reasons 90% of the appropriate rate of pay for the work being performed. Id. at 5. UPS responded by arguing that judgment on the pleadings was inappropriate because: (1) the EEOC relied upon a selective and erroneous interpretation of the CBA; (2) the CBA contained ambiguities that precluded judgment; (3) “whether the CBA works to the benefit or detriment of a medically disqualified driver depends entirely on the particular factual scenario in each case,” which required the Court to engage in a case-by-case analysis to determine if an employee has been discriminated; and (4) the CBA did not limit the opportunities available to individuals with disabilities, but provided additional opportunities beyond what the ADA required. Id.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted the EEOC’s motion for judgment on the pleadings.

First, the Court held that the CBA’s language was plain and unambiguous, and further, that it was “immaterial whether medically disqualified drivers have other options; paying employees less because of their disability is discriminatory under any circumstance.” Id. at 5-6. Further, the Court held that the alleged ambiguities that precluded judgment in the EEOC’s favor were attempts to create confusion where none existed. Specifically, the Court opined that UPS’s arguments were “red-herrings because they fail[ed] to address the pertinent issue — pay at less than 100% based on disability.” Id. at 6.

Turning to UPS’s argument that a case-by-case impact analysis was required to show that the policy was facially discriminatory, the Court rejected this argument, explaining that “[a]t the liability stage in a pattern-and-practice claim, the plaintiff must show that unlawful discrimination is part of the employer’s ‘standard operating procedure.’” Id. The Court further explained that under this standard, the government must establish a prima facie case of a discriminatory policy, but it was not required to offer evidence that each individual who may seek relief was a victim of the policy. As such, the Court held that the EEOC met its burden in establishing that the CBA was facially discriminatory.

Finally, the Court rejected UPS’s argument that he CBA did not limit the opportunities available to individuals with disabilities. The Court instead held that UPS did not provide a legitimate reason for paying medically disqualified drivers performing “inside work” less than those disqualified for other reasons under the CBA, and therefore failed to overcome the EEOC’s prima facie case of discrimination. Id. at 7.

In regards to injunctive relief, the Court held that the EEOC demonstrated that its claim warranted a permanent injunction. Id. at 7-8. Noting that monetary damages cannot prevent future harm, the Court opined that “[t]he only ‘hardship’ UPS Freight will suffer is paying medically disqualified drivers more (100% pay rate), which is the same rate it already pays its other, non-disabled employees.” Id. at 8. After further holding that the public interest will not be harmed by a permanent injunction prohibiting UPS from discriminating on the basis of disability, the Court ordered the next collective bargaining agreement is to prohibit the same discriminatory practice. Accordingly, the Court granted the EEOC’s motion for judgment on the pleadings and thereby granted its motion for injunctive relief.

Implications For Employers

For employers who provide alternative work assignments to employees with medical disqualifications, this ruling should serve as an eye-opener. It is crucial that businesses examine the compensation for such employees to confirm they are not being compensated at a disproportionally lower rate than other non-medically disqualified employees who are reassigned. Accordingly, a best practice for employers is to routinely examine their policies regarding medical disqualification and compensation to ensure they are complying with the ADA, in order to prevent EEOC-initiated litigation.

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

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: In an EEOC-initiated systemic lawsuit alleging that a senior living and nursing facility operator violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by failing to offer employees light duty as a reasonable accommodation and ignoring its obligation to engage in an interactive process, a federal district court in California recently granted in part the employer’s motion to dismiss the claims of eight specifically identified claimants, holding that the EEOC failed to sufficiently allege that these individuals had a disability or could perform essential job functions.

For businesses facing EEOC-initiated litigation relative to disability discrimination, this ruling provides a blueprint for attacking such claims at the pleading stage.

***

Case Background

In EEOC v. Prestige Care, Inc., Case No. 1:17-CV-1299, 2018 LEXIS 119305 (E.D. Cal. July 17, 2018), the EEOC brought a systemic lawsuit on behalf of thirteen identified claimants for violations of the ADA. Prestige manages nursing care facilities and senior assisted living facilities in California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Arizona. Id. at *3. The EEOC alleged that Prestige implemented and followed policies that violated the ADA, including: (1) a “100% healed/100% fit for duty” return to work policy; (2) not offering light duty as a reasonable accommodation; and (3) ignoring its obligation to engage in an interactive process. Id. The EEOC argued that these policies did not permit reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals.

In its motion to dismiss, Prestige argued that the EEOC’s complaint was deficient as to ten of the thirteen claimants identified by the EEOC since it failed to allege they had impairments that affected a major life activity, or failed to identify essential job functions. Id. Without such allegations, Prestige argued there were no plausible ADA claims with respect to the ten claimants. In response, the EEOC argued that dismissal was inappropriate because the allegations stated plausible claims, including on behalf of unnamed individuals. Further, the EEOC argued that it would be premature to dismiss without the benefit of discovery as to the specific individuals.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted Prestige’s motion to dismiss the EEOC’s claims as to the eight claimants while denying Prestige’s motion as to two claimants. The Court first addressed the EEOC’s arguments (1) that no challenge with respect to claimants was appropriate because it was not a proxy for any individual claimant or charging party; (2) Rule 23 does not apply to the Commission’s lawsuits or when a § 706 claim is pursued; and (3) the EEOC is not required to identify each member of the class to recover. Id. at *5. Noting that “none of these positions adequately address the issue at hand,” the Court explained that Prestige did not argue that Rule 23 applied in this case, nor did it attempt to impose any of Rule 23’s requirements on the EEOC. Further, Prestige did not argue that the EEOC must identify each person for whom recovery is sought. Rather, Prestige was simply raising the question of how to review the allegations concerning the persons that the EEOC chose to identify. As such, the Court held that when the EEOC pursues a systemic claim under § 706 and chooses to identify additional persons who have suffered some form of disability discrimination, the allegations must plausibly show that those “additional individuals” are protected by the ADA. Id. at *6.

The Court then addressed the sufficiency of the allegations as to each of the ten identified claimants that were the subjects of the motion to dismiss. In moving to dismiss the claims of eight of the ten claimants, Prestige primarily challenged the allegations by arguing (1) the EEOC did not identify or allege that a major life activity was affected; (2) the essential functions of the job were not identified; and (3) there were no indications that the aggrieved individual could have performed the essential functions of the job with or without accommodation. Id. at *8-11. For several claimants, the Court held that while the EEOC would identify a physical impairment in its complaint, for instance, plantar fasciitis, it failed to adequately identify a major life activity that was substantially affected by the condition (such as walking or standing, for the claimant with plantar fasciitis). Id. at *17. Regarding the EEOC’s failure to plead the essential job functions, by way of example, the Court noted that for a laundry worker claimant with PTSD and anxiety, the EEOC failed to identify any essential functions of the job, and therefore could not show she was qualified. Id. at *22. Accordingly, the Court granted the motion to dismiss eight of ten identified claimants.

In denying the motion to dismiss as to two of the ten claimants, the Court explained that the allegations were sufficient to plausibly show that the claimants were “qualified individual[s] with a disability.” Id. at *18-19. For instance, the Court held that for a claimant who disclosed a nerve condition that was adversely affected by standing for longer than 15 minutes and lifting heavy objects, the EEOC alleged that Prestige still hired him as a cook, and therefore believed that he could perform the essential functions of that position. As such, the Court held that dismissal of this claimant as a class member would be inappropriate. Id. at *19. Accordingly, the Court denied the motion to dismiss two of the ten claimants.

Implications For Employers

This ruling provides an excellent framework for employers in regards to attacking disability discrimination claims where the EEOC identifies multiple claimants. Employers can rely on the Court’s analyses relative to (1) how the EEOC often failed to identify a major life activity that was substantially affected by the physical impairment it identified; and (2) how the EEOC frequently failed to provide any information whatsoever about essential job functions in its pleading.

But despite dismissing eight of the ten claimants, it is noteworthy that the dismissals were without prejudice. Id. at *22-23. The Court held that the EEOC may file an amended complaint that addresses and corrects the deficiencies with respect to these eight alleged claimants. As such, even though the employer emerged largely victorious in this battle, the Court nonetheless afforded the EEOC a second bite of the apple to remedy its largely deficient pleading.

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

 

By Matthew J. GagnonChristopher J. DeGroff, and Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: With uncertain times and profound changes anticipated for the EEOC, employers anxiously await what enforcement litigation the EEOC has in store. Although 2016 showed a marked decline in filings, fiscal year 2017 shows a return to vigorous enforcement filings, with a substantial number of filings in the waning days of the fiscal year.

Employers are living in uncertain times. The impact of a Trump Administration and the EEOC’s new Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) for fiscal years 2017-2021 are still working themselves out in the FY 2017 filing trends. Nonetheless, one trend has reemerged: a vigorous number of EEOC case filings. It looks like the anemic numbers of FY 2016 were just a bump in the road, as FY 2017 has revealed an increase in total filings, even eclipsing the numbers from FY 2015 and 2014. (Compare here to here and here.) This year, the EEOC filed 202 actions, 184 merits lawsuits and 18 subpoena enforcement actions.

The September filing frenzy is still an EEOC way-of-life, as this past month yet again holds the title for most filings compared to any other month. At the time of publication, 88 lawsuits were filed in September, including 21 in the last two days alone. In fact, the EEOC filed more cases in the last three months of FY 2017 than it did during all of FY 2016. The total number of filings for the remaining months remains consistent with prior years, including a noticeable ramp up period boasting double digit numbers through the summer.

Filings out of the Chicago district office were back up in FY 2017 after an uncharacteristic decline to just 7 total filings in 2016. This year, Chicago hit 21 filings, an enormous increase from last year. This is closer to the total number of Chicago filings in FY 2015 and 2014 (26 in each year). The Los Angeles district office also increased its filings, hitting a high of 22, a substantial jump compared to previous years and the most of any district office in FY 2017. On the other end of the spectrum, the Phoenix district office has seen a notable drop, with only 7 filings compared to 17 in FY 2016.

New SEP, Same Focus

Every year we analyze what the EEOC says about its substantive focus as a way to understand what conduct it is targeting. This year, Title VII takes center stage. Although Title VII has consistently been the largest category of filings, last year showed a dip in the percentage of filings alleging Title VII violations, at only 41%. Nonetheless, this year Title VII has regained its previous proportion, accounting for 53% of all filings. This is on par with FY 2015 and 2014, showing once again that FY 2016 seems to have been an outlier.

Although the 2017-2021 SEP outlined the same general enforcement priorities as the previous version of the SEP (covering FY 2012 to 2016), the new SEP added “backlash discrimination” towards individuals of Muslin/Sikh/Arab/Middle Eastern/South Asian communities as an additional focus. One would expect this focus might increase the number of Title VII claims alleging either religious, racial, or national origin discrimination. However, those filings stayed relatively even, and were even a bit down from previous years. Religious, national origin, and race discrimination claims made up 42% of all Title VII claims, compared to 50% in 2016 and 46% in 2015.

Uncertainty For Equal Pay Claims

With a new administration came a new Acting Chair for the EEOC. President Trump appointed Victoria Lipnic as Acting Chair on January 25, 2017. Employers expected the EEOC’s new leader to steer the EEOC’s agenda in a different direction. Some believed Lipnic was foreshadowing future trends when she made it clear at her first public appearance – hosted by none other than Seyfarth Shaw – that she is “very interested in equal pay issues.” (See here.) And indeed, we have seen a slight uptick in the number of EPA claims filed in FY 2017. In FY 2017, The EEOC filed 11 EPA claims, compared to 6 in 2016, 5 in 2015, and 2 in 2014.

However, on June 28, 2017, President Trump tapped Janet Dhillon as Chair of the EEOC. Dhillon would come to the EEOC with extensive experience in a big law firm and as the lead lawyer at three large corporations, US Airways, J.C. Penney, and Burlington Stores Inc. Although it is too early to know how she could change the direction of the agency if confirmed, it is entirely possible that she could back away from previous goals to pursue equal pay claims more aggressively.

The Trump Administration has also made other moves that may indicate a change in direction with respect to equal pay initiatives. On February 1, 2016, the EEOC proposed changes to the EEO-1 report that would require all employers with more than 100 employees to submit more detailed compensation data to the EEOC, including information regarding total compensation and total hours worked by race, ethnicity, and gender. This was a change from the previous EEO-1 report, which only required employers to report on employee gender and ethnicity in relation to job titles. However, on August 29, 2017, the new EEO-1 reporting requirements were indefinitely suspended. We will have to wait and see whether the slight uptick in EPA claims in FY 2017 was a one-year anomaly.

Implications For Employers

The changes brought by the Trump Administration are still in the process of working themselves down into the rank and file of many federal agencies. The EEOC is no exception. Despite all of the unrest and uncertainty about where the EEOC may be headed, the FY 2017 filing trends largely show a return to previous years, albeit with a slight uptick in EPA claims. Certainly, changes in top personnel will have an impact on how the EEOC pursues its enforcement agenda. Exactly what that impact will be remains to be seen.

Loyal readers know that this post is merely a prelude to our full analysis of trends and developments affecting EEOC litigation, which will be published at the end of the calendar year. Stay tuned for our continued analysis of FY 2017 EEOC filings, and our thoughts about what employers should keep an eye on as we enter FY 2018. We look forward to keeping you in the loop all year long!

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

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis:  After a federal district court dismissed the EEOC’s unlawful-interference claim against a private college that had sued a former employee for allegedly breaching a settlement agreement by filing an EEOC charge, the Tenth Circuit reversed the dismissal of the EEOC’s unlawful-interference claim, citing the employer’s introduction of a new case theory relative to the EEOC’s still-pending retaliation claim.

This ruling serves a cautionary tale for employers regarding the timing of their assertion of new case theories in EEOC litigation involving multiple claims.

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After CollegeAmerica resolved a dispute with a former employee by entering into a settlement agreement, upon belief that the employee breached the settlement agreement, CollegeAmerica sued the employee in state court.  Id. at *1-2.  Thereafter, the EEOC sued CollegeAmerica in federal court alleging that CollegeAmerica’s interpretation and enforcement of the settlement agreement was unlawfully interfering with statutory rights of the former employee and the EEOC.  Following the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado’s dismissal of the EEOC’s claim for unlawful-interference with statutory rights, on appeal in EEOC v. CollegeAmerica Denver Inc., No. 16-1340, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17094 (10th Cir. Sept. 5, 2017), the Tenth Circuit reversed the dismissal, holding that the EEOC’s unlawful-interference claim should not have been dismissed as moot in light of a new theory asserted by CollegeAmerica prior to its trial regarding the EEOC’s pending retaliation claim.

Employers should keep this ruling in mind when preparing trial theories that may have implications on claims that had previously been dismissed as moot.

Case Background

The EEOC brought a claim for unlawful-interference with statutory rights, which the District Court ultimately dismissed as moot.  Regarding the EEOC’s retaliation claim, which remained for trial, CollegeAmerica presented a new theory against the employee: that she had breached the settlement agreement by reporting adverse information to the EEOC without notifying CollegeAmerica.  In response, the EEOC argued that by presenting this new theory, CollegeAmerica was continuing to interfere with the statutory rights of the former employee and the EEOC.  As such, the EEOC appealed the dismissal of its unlawful-interference claim, arguing that the claim was no longer moot in light of CollegeAmerica’s new theory.

The Tenth Circuit’s Decision

The Tenth Circuit reversed the dismissal of the of the EEOC’s unlawful-interference claim.  First, the Court instructed that in determining whether a claim is moot, a special rule applies when the defendant voluntarily stops the challenged conduct.  Id. at *4-5.  When the conduct stops, the claim will be deemed moot only if two conditions exist: (1) it is absolutely clear the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur, and (2) interim relief or events have completely and irrevocably eradicated the effects of the alleged violation.  In arguing that the case was moot, CollegeAmerica submitted two declarations from its general counsel assuring that CollegeAmerica would not take the “positions known to trouble the EEOC.”  Id. at *6.  In response, the EEOC argued that the declarations should not be relied upon since CollegeAmerica presented a new theory after the filing of the declarations–that the employee had breached the settlement agreement by reporting adverse information to the EEOC without notifying CollegeAmerica–an argument that continued CollegeAmerica’s unlawful interference with statutory rights.  The Tenth Circuit held that because CollegeAmerica planned to present its new theory in its state court suit, the potential for CollegeAmerica to repeat its allegedly wrongful behavior remained, and CollegeAmerica thus did not satisfy its burden of demonstrating the absence of a potential for reoccurrence.  Id.

Next, the Tenth Circuit rejected CollegeAmerica’s argument that the case was moot because the outcome “would not affect anything in the real world.”   Id. at *7.  The Tenth Circuit noted that in its state court suit, CollegeAmerica planned to argue that the employee breached the settlement agreement by reporting adverse information to the EEOC without notifying CollegeAmerica. The EEOC alleged that this argument would constitute unlawful-interference with the employee’s rights, and thus sought a permanent injunction prohibiting CollegeAmerica from unlawfully interfering with the statutory rights of the employee and the EEOC.  The Tenth Circuit accepted the EEOC’s argument, holding that if the EEOC prevailed on the merits and obtained an injunction, CollegeAmerica could not present its new theory in the state court suit against the employee, which “would constitute an effect in the real world.”  Id.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit declined to consider CollegeAmerica’s argument that the EEOC’s unlawful-interference claim brought under 29 U.S.C § 626(f)(4) failed as a matter of law since it could not be used as an affirmative cause of action, noting the District Court had not yet ruled on the issue and therefore it was to consider that issue on remand.  Id. at *7-8.  The Tenth Circuit also refused to consider CollegeAmerica’s argument that the EEOC sought overly broad, unauthorized injunctive and declaratory relief, explaining it would not consider this issue since it was raised on appeal for the first time.  Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit reversed and remanded the District Court’s dismissal of the EEOC’s unlawful-interference claim.

Implications For Employers

For employers facing litigation, this ruling provides an important lesson: when considering the defense of one claim, it is imperative to be cognizant of how that argument can impact the defense of another claim, even if the other claim has been dismissed.  Further, this decision illustrates the EEOC’s willingness to combat employers who bring causes of action against former employees who may have breached settlement agreements by asserting discrimination claims.  As such, employers should be cautious when suing former employees who later file EEOC charges, and must exercise further caution when considering how their strategies to defend one claim may affect another.

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

finger-150x112By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Fourth Circuit recently affirmed a U.S. District Court’s denial of three post-verdict motions brought by an employer in an EEOC religious discrimination case alleging a failure to accommodate an employee’s Anti-Christ fears. The case is an interesting read for any employer involved in religious discrimination issues.

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Most religious accommodation lawsuits brought by the EEOC against employers concern mainstream religions. But when the EEOC successfully sues an employer for failing to accommodate an employee’s Anti-Christ fears, employers need to pay attention, especially when that cases involves a jury verdict awarding over $586,000 in total damages (as we blogged about here).

In EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., No. 16-1230, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 10385 (4th Cir. June 12, 2017), the EEOC alleged that the defendants (“Consol”) refused to provide an employee with a religious accommodation by subjecting him to a biometric hand scanner for purposes of clocking in and out of work.  The employee believed the hand scanner was used to identify and collect personal information that would be used by the Christian Anti-Christ, as described in the New Testament Book of Revelation, to identify followers with the “mark of the beast.”  Following a jury verdict in favor of the EEOC, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia denied Consol’s renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b), motion for a new trial under Rule 59, and motion to amend the Court’s findings and conclusions under Rule 59.  Following the employer’s appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

With the Fourth Circuit affirming the District Court’s ruling after an eyebrow-raising EEOC jury trial victory, it behooves the interests of employers to consider any and all religious accommodation requests.

Case Background

In the summer of 2012, Consol implemented a biometric hand-scanner system at the mine where the employee worked, in order to better monitor attendance and work hours. Id. at *4.  The scanner system required each employee checking in or out of a shift to scan his or her right hand; the shape of the right hand was then linked to the worker’s unique personnel number.  While Consol implemented the scanner to produce more efficient and accurate time reporting, the employee alleged it presented a threat to his core religious commitments.

As the employee consistently and unsuccessfully sought an accommodation that would preclude him from having to clock in with the scanner, Consol meanwhile allowed employees with injured hands to scan in using a different keypad system.  Id. at *7.  Eventually, the employee decided to retire in lieu of using the hand-scanner, and later found a lower paying job.  The EEOC thereafter brought an enforcement action against Consol on behalf of the employee, alleging a failure to accommodate religious beliefs and constructive discharge.  Id. at *9.  After the case ultimately proceeded to trial, the jury found Consol liable for failing to accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs.  The jury awarded $150,000 in compensatory damages and $436,860.74 in front and back pay and lost benefits.  Id. at *10-11.  Consol then filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b), a motion for a new trial under Rule 59, and a motion to amend the Court’s findings and conclusions under Rule 59.  The District Court denied all three post-verdict motions, and Consol appealed.  Id. at *11.

The Fourth Circuit’s Decision

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s denial of Consol’s three post-verdict motions.  First, Consol challenged the denial of its renewed motion for a judgment as a matter of law, arguing that the District Court erred in concluding that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict against it.  Consol argued that it did not fail to reasonably accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs because there was in fact no conflict between his beliefs and its requirement that he use the hand scanner system.  The Fourth Circuit rejected this argument, noting that in both the employee’s request for an accommodation and his trial testimony, the employee carefully and clearly laid out his religious objection to use of the scanner system.  Id. at *13.

Next, regarding the District Court’s denial of its motion for a new trial under Rule 59, Consol raised a handful of objections that primarily related to the District Court’s exclusion of evidence and various issues related to jury instructions.  Id. at *20.  The Fourth Circuit noted that it would “ respect the [D]istrict [C]ourt’s decision absent an abuse of discretion, and will disturb that judgment only in the most exceptional circumstances.”  Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).  Further, it opined that, “[w]hen, as here, a new trial is sought based on purported evidentiary errors by the district court, a verdict may be set aside only if an error is so grievous as to have rendered the entire trial unfair.”  Id.  Applying this standard, the Fourth Circuit found that the District Court did not abuse its discretion.  Regarding the jury instructions, the Fourth Circuit held that the District Court properly found that Consol failed to show any prejudice arising from any of the instructions at issue.  Id. at *26.

Finally, both parties cross-appealed the District Court’s rulings on lost wages and punitive damages.  The Fourth Circuit rejected Consol’s argument that the employee failed to adequately mitigate his damages by accepting a lower paying job, noting that whether a worker acted reasonably in accepting particular employment is preeminently a question of fact, and that it would not second-guess the District Court.  The Fourth Circuit also rejected the EEOC’s cross-appeal regarding punitive damages, holding that the district court did not err in concluding that the EEOC’s evidence fell short of allowing for a determination that Consol’s Title VII violation was the result of the kind of “reckless indifference” necessary to support an award of punitive damages.  Id. at *34.  Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s denial of Consol’s three post-verdict motions.

Implications For Employer

While it makes sense from a practical standpoint for employers to foster a work environment that is respectful of its employees’ religious beliefs, this ruling demonstrates that employers should also be tolerant of their employees’ religious accommodation requests for legal and financial reasons.  And although many employers will likely never encounter an employee requesting a religious accommodation to cope with his or her fear of the Anti-Christ, they nonetheless must seriously entertain any and all religious accommodation requests.  Equipped with an Appellate Court affirmation of its jury trial verdict, the EEOC may very well likely “smell blood” in the sea of religious discrimination charges in its backlog.  As such, the best practice for employers is to take a respectful and thoughtful approach to religious accommodation requests to avoid potential EEOC litigation and sometimes unforgiving juries.

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

gavel on white backgroundBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Christopher J. DeGroff, and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis:  A federal district court in Illinois recently granted the EEOC’s motion for partial summary judgment in EEOC v. Dolgencorp, LLC, No. 13-CV-4307 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 10, 2017), relative to two defenses advanced by an employer, including: (1) the EEOC’s claims were barred as beyond the scope of the charges of discrimination and investigation; and (2) the EEOC failed to satisfy its Title VII pre-suit duty to conciliate with the employer. The ruling should be required reading for any employer facing or engaged in litigation with the Commission.

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An increasingly common issue in EEOC litigation against employers involves the scope of the Commission’s lawsuits as related to the charges of discrimination, as well as the EEOC’s conciliation efforts, or lack thereof.  In EEOC v. Dolgencorp, LLC, No. 13-CV-4307 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 10, 2017), the EEOC moved for partial summary judgment regarding two defenses enumerated by the defendant, Dolgencorp, LLC (“Dollar General”): (1) the EEOC’s claims were barred as beyond the scope of the charges of discrimination and investigation; and (2) the EEOC failed to satisfy its Title VII pre-suit duty to conciliate with the employer.  On April 10, 2017, Judge Andrea R. Wood of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted the EEOC’s motion for partial summary judgment as to these defenses asserted by Dollar General.

As Judge Wood acknowledged, many courts across the country have embraced defenses asserted by employers relating to the sufficiency of the EEOC’s investigation.  However, this ruling demonstrates that not all courts may be as receptive to those arguments.

Case Background

Two former Dollar General employees filed charges of discrimination with the EEOC regarding Dollar General’s allegedly discriminatory use of criminal background checks in hiring and firing determinations.  Id. at 1.  The EEOC investigated and determined that there was reasonable cause to believe that Dollar General had engaged in employment discrimination on the basis of race. The parties then engaged in written and oral communications regarding the alleged discrimination, which did not result in a conciliation agreement acceptable to the EEOC.  Id. at 2.  Thereafter, the EEOC brought a lawsuit against Dollar General under Title VII.

Amongst its enumerated defenses, Dollar General asserted that the EEOC’s claims were barred as beyond the scope of the charges of discrimination and investigation (its 7th enumerated defense), and that the EEOC failed to satisfy the statutory precondition for bringing suit when it failed to conciliate with Dollar General (its 8th enumerated defense). The EEOC moved for partial summary judgment as to Dollar General’s two enumerated defenses.  Id. at 3. The EEOC contended that, on the undisputed facts, these two defenses failed as a matter of law.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted the EEOC’s motion for partial summary judgment regarding Dollar General’s two enumerated defenses.  Dollar General’s seventh enumerated defense relied upon two separate propositions: first, the EEOC’s claims were barred because they went beyond the claims delineated in the charges of discrimination that generated the EEOC’s lawsuit; and second, the EEOC’s claims were barred because the EEOC failed to investigate those claims adequately prior to bringing suit.  Id. at 4.  The Court rejected the first proposition, holding that when the EEOC files suit, it is not confined to claims typified by those of the charging party, and further, that any violations that the EEOC ascertains in the course of a reasonable investigation of the charging party’s complaint are actionable.  Id.  As to the second proposition, the Court similarly opined that the Seventh Circuit has held that if courts may not limit a suit by the EEOC to claims made in the administrative charge, they likewise cannot limit the suit to claims that are found to be supported by the evidence obtained in the Commission’s investigation.  Id.  Accordingly, the Court rejected Dollar General’s defenses insofar as it sought to dismiss the EEOC’s claims because they went beyond the charges of discrimination or because they were not subject to an adequate pre-suit investigation.  Id. at 4-5.

In addition, the Court addressed Dollar General’s eighth enumerated defense, which contended that the suit could not go forward because the EEOC did not satisfy its pre-suit statutory obligation to conciliate.  The EEOC sent two Letters of Determination to Dollar General that stated that the EEOC found reasonable cause to believe that Dollar General engaged in discrimination in violation of Title VII because, through application of its background check policy, a class of African-American applicants and employees were not hired, not considered for employment, or discharged.  Dollar General argued that this notice of the charge was not specific enough because it failed to identify the persons allegedly harmed and to identify the allegedly discriminatory practice.

Rejecting Dollar General’s argument regarding the specificity of notice, the Court held that the EEOC’s letters clearly set forth that there were African-American applicants and employees who were harmed by the allegedly discriminatory practice.  Id. at 6.  Further, the Court opined that as the Seventh Circuit has explained, the sufficiency of the EEOC’s investigation was not a matter for the judiciary to second-guess.  Dollar General also argued that the EEOC failed to specifically describe the allegedly discriminatory practice, and that merely pointing to the background check policy was not sufficient.  The Court rejected this argument, holding that the EEOC’s notice was sufficient since it identified the two complainants and further put Dollar General on notice that the EEOC’s allegations related to African-American applicants and employees that were not hired, not considered for employment, or discharged due to failing a background check.  Id. at 8-9.

Finally, Dollar General contended that the EEOC’s conciliation discussions were inadequate because the EEOC did not provide Dollar General with an opportunity to remedy the allegedly discriminatory practice.  Id. at 9.  Citing Mach Mining, LLC v. EEOC, 135 S. Ct. 1645, 1655-56 (2015) (which we analyzed here), the Court refused to examine the sufficiency of the EEOC’s investigation, noting it was beyond the scope of its review.  Id.  The Court thus rejected Dollar General’s argument that the EEOC did not adequately engage the employer in conciliation discussions.

Accordingly, the Court granted the EEOC motion for partial summary judgment on Dollar General’s seventh and eighth enumerated defenses.

Implications For Employers

While the Court did not find in the employer’s favor, other courts have routinely held the EEOC accountable in instances where it did not fulfill its pre-suit obligations.  With rulings such as this one, it can be expected that the EEOC will continue to test courts’ willingness to force the Commission to abide by its statutory duties under Title VII.  As such, employers should continue to be aggressive in attacking instances where the EEOC improperly expands its lawsuits beyond charges or fails to conciliate.

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

gavel on white backgroundBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Mark W. Wallin, and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: A federal court in Tennessee denied the EEOC’s application for an Order to Show Cause why its administrative subpoena should not be enforced.  This ruling highlights the importance and benefits of employers understanding the contours of the charges being investigated by the EEOC, so that the employer can guard against improper fishing expeditions.

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Although courts typically grant the EEOC wide latitude to obtain information regarding its investigations of workplace discrimination, this access is not limitless.  One such limit was recently highlighted in EEOC. v. Southeast Food Services Company, LLC d/b/a Wendy’s, Case No. 3:16-MC-46 (E.D. Tenn. Mar. 27, 2017 ), where Magistrate Judge H. Bruce Guyton of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee denied the EEOC’s Application for an Order to Show Cause Why an Administrative Subpoena Should Not Be Enforced (“Application”).  The Court refused to enforce the EEOC’s subpoena, finding that the request for contact information of all of Southeast Food Services Company, LLC, d/b/a Wendy’s (“Wendy’s”) current and former employees, among other things, was not relevant to the individual charge of discrimination being investigated by the EEOC.

This ruling illustrates the importance to employers of understanding the scope of the EEOC charge being investigated, and provides a roadmap for pushing back against agency overreach when the Commission seeks information that is not pertinent to the investigation at issue.

Case Background

In September 2014, Wendy’s hired Christine Cordero as a crew member at one of its restaurant locations.  Id. at 2.  Shortly thereafter, Wendy’s promoted Cordero to crew leader.  Id.  As part of her promotion, Wendy’s requested that Cordero sign a general release of all claims she may have against Wendy’s up to that point, but not including future claims.  Id.  For the past 20 years, Wendy’s had conditioned promotions on signing this release. Id.  Despite not having any claims against Wendy’s, Cordero refused to sign the release.  Id.  As a result of her refusal, Cordero did not receive the promotion, but still received training for the position and a small raise that accompanied the promotion.   Id.

Ms. Cordero continued to work for Wendy’s, but filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC in December 2014.  Id.  In the charge, Cordero alleged that Wendy’s retaliated against her by not promoting her due to her refusal to sign the release. Id.  In the course of its investigation of Cordero’s charge of discrimination, the EEOC learned of Wendy’s longtime practice of requiring employees to sign a release of claims as a condition of promotion, and thereafter sent Wendy’s a letter indicating it intended to expand the investigation.  Id.  In this letter, the EEOC also requested information from Wendy’s regarding current and former employees who had worked for Wendy’s since December 2012.  Id.  Wendy’s, however, refused to provide this additional information, and the EEOC then issued a subpoena seeking the same information.  Id. at 2-3.

The EEOC’s subpoena sought the identity and contact information of all current and former employees since December 2012, including employees who signed the release of claims and who had been promoted.  Id. at 3.  In addition, the subpoena sought the employees’ dates of hire, promotion and termination, reasons for termination, and titles, as well as copies of all releases that Wendy’s had employees sign during that period, among other things.  Id.  Wendy’s continued to object, and refused to provide the information subpoenaed.  Id.  Thereafter, on November 18, 2016, the EEOC filed the Application with the Court, to which Wendy’s responded on February 22, 2017.

The Court’s Decision

The Court denied the EEOC’s Application and declined to enforce the subpoena.  The EEOC argued that it “require[d] the contact information for [Wendy’s] employees to mail questionnaires in order to determine if those employees gave up any claim in order to receive promotions.”  Id. at 4.  In response, Wendy’s asserted that the sole issue with regard to the instant charge was whether its uniform policy regarding a signed release as a condition of promotion was sufficient to sustain Cordero’s Title VII retaliation claim, and that the information sought for the questionnaires was neither relevant nor necessary to the EEOC’s investigation.  Id. at 4-5.  Siding with Wendy’s, the Court rejected the EEOC’s argument, finding that “whether other ‘employees gave up any claim in order to receive promotions’ [was] irrelevant to resolving Ms. Cordero’s charge.”  Id. at 5.

The EEOC further argued that sending the questionnaires to other employees was the only way to verify Wendy’s contention that no other employees aside from Cordero refused to sign the release.  The Court again rejected the EEOC’s argument, noting it was “unclear how another employee’s refusal to sign a release ‘might cast light’ on the instant charge, particularly where there is no dispute that for the past 20 years, all employees have been required to sign a general release of all claims as a condition of promotion.”  Id. at 6.  The Court further reasoned that the potential unlawfulness of Wendy’s employment practice was not dependent on how many other employees signed a release.  Id. at 7.  Accordingly, the Court held that the EEOC did not meet its burden in demonstrating that the information subpoenaed is relevant to Cordero’s charge, and declined to enforce the subpoena.

Implication for Employers

In what has become “go-to” play in the EEOC’s investigation playbook, the Commission has been aggressive in taking individual charges of discrimination as means to seek company-wide personnel information from employers through subpoenas.  Employers that encounter requests for expansive personnel data in the course of single employee investigations can add this ruling to their own playbooks in defending against overzealous EEOC investigations.  While the Commission likely will continue to be aggressive in seeking massive amounts of information from employers in investigations, this ruling provides optimism for employers who are willing to firmly oppose such tactics.

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