Sexual Harassment: Federal Courts are a Big Part of the Problem

A big part of the problem re. epidemic sexual harassment in the workplace involves the dismissive treatment that federal judges (of both sexes) have historically accorded to victims of sexual harassment.  Here’s a story I wrote a while back that may curl the hair on the back of your neck.  The story involves incompetence by a federal agency and a blood curdling lack of empathy by a female federal judge to women who were subjected to extreme sexual harassment and even assault when they attempted to improve their lot in life by becoming truck drivers. PGB

 

JUDGE WHACKS EEOC WITH $4.7 IN FEES AS SEXUAL HARASSMENT CASE OF FEMALE TRUCK DRIVERS CRASHES AND BURNS

It’s easy to forget that EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc. started with a 2005 sex discrimination complaint by a female truck driver trainee, Monika Starke, who said she was sexually harassed  by her two “Lead Trainers.”

Chief Judge Linda R. Reade of the U.S. District Court of Iowa ruled recently that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission must pay CRST, one of the nation’s leading transport companies,  $4,694,422.14 in attorney fees and costs stemming from the case.

Judge Reade’s decision  is brutally unsympathetic to the EEOC and the  255 female trainees and drivers who alleged sex discrimination and harassment against CRST.  She appears to be much more concerned about the supposedly unfair burden the litigation placed on CRST.

The case began with a sex discrimination lawsuit filed by the EEOC on behalf of Starke and other similarly situated employees.

Court records show that Monika Starke alleged that one of the CRST trainers told her “the gear stick is not the penis of my husband, I don’t have to touch the gear stick so often”  and “You got big tits for your size, etc. . . “  She said she told him she was not interested in a sexual relationship with him and called the CRST dispatcher to complain.   “[I] was told that I could not get off the truck until the next day.”  she said.

The other “Lead Trainer”  allegedly forced Starke to have sex with him while traveling from July 18, 2005 through August 3, 2005  “in order to get a passing grade.”

Starke is described as a German who struggles with English. She and her  husband subsequently hired a lawyer and filed for bankruptcy.  They failed  to mention  the CRST lawsuit, prompting CRST to file a motion to prevent Starke from proceeding against CRST on grounds of judicial estoppel –  a doctrine that is meant to protect the integrity of the court.  Judge Reade granted the motion.

In fact, Judge Reade granted CRST’s pre-trial motions to dismiss all of the complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination filed by the EEOC against CRST.

In a dozen cases, Judge Reade said the complaints were not “severe or pervasive” enough.

In other cases, Judge Reade said CRST did not have legal (as opposed to real)  notice of the harassment and the “Lead Drivers” – who evaluated the performance of the female trainees – did not fall within the court’s technical definition of  supervisor in that they could not fire the trainees.

Judge Reade dismissed 67 cases because the EEOC did not attempt to conciliate or negotiate with the CRST to settle the cases –  which appears to be a brand  new requirement that could severely limit the  EEOC in the future. Judge Reade conceded that dismissal was a  “severe” sanction for these complainants.

The EEOC appealed Judge Reade’s dismissal of the case  to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit.

Appeals Court

In its decision, the  Eigth Circuit agreed that the “Lead Drivers” are not supervisory employees and that CRST was not vicariously liable for sexual harassment/discrimination committed by these employees.

 The  appellate court generally agreed female complainants claims that they were propositioned for sex by male trainers and drivers were not sufficiently severe or pervasive to support a hostile work environment claim. The Court said an individual must show “more than a few isolated incidents” to support such a claim.  (It was unclear exactly how many times  a worker must be propositioned for sex by a superior to qualify as being harassed.)

However, the appeals court disagreed with the dismissal of the claims of three female plaintiffs and ordered them reinstated. The court also reversed Judge Reade’s earlier grant of attorney fees to CRST in the amount of $4,560,285.11.

One of the three employees whose case was reinstated was Sherry O’Donnell,  who spent  seven days on the road with a male co-driver who asked her on three to five occasions to drive naked;  refused her request to stop at a truck stop so she could go to the bathroom,  ordering her instead to urinate in the parking lot; and, “in a culminating incident grabbed O’Donnell’s face while she was driving and began screaming that ‘all he wanted was a girlfriend.’ Regarding this third incident, O’Donnell testified that Sears grabbed her face so vigorously that it caused one of her teeth to lacerate her lip.”

Her lead trainer began screaming that ‘all he wanted was a girlfriend.’ He grabbed her face so vigorously that he caused one of her teeth to lacerate her lip.

The other complainant, Tillie Jones, testified that during a two-week training trip, her Lead Driver, wore only underwear in the cab and on several occasions rubbed the back of her head, despite her repeated requests that he stop. He allegedly referred to Jones as  “his bitch” five or six times and, when Jones’s complained about his slovenly habits, ordered Jones to clean up the truck, declaring “that’s what you’re on the truck for, you’re my bitch. I ain’t your bitch. Shut up and clean it up.”  Like many of CRST’s Lead Drivers, Jones said he routinely urinated in plastic bottles and ziplock bags while in transit, leaving  his urine receptacles about the truck’s cab for her to clean up.

The appeals court ruled the EEOC established material issues of fact regarding the harassment that O’Donnell and Jones allegedly suffered. “We hold that the district court erred in concluding, as a matter of law, that the harassment they suffered was insufficiently severe or pervasive,” the court said.

Finally, the Court rejected Judge Reade’s finding that the EEOC itself was barred by the doctrine of judicial estoppel from proceeding on Monika Starke’s behalf, noting the EEOC had not misrepresented any facts to the court.  That brought Ms. Starke case back into the litigation.

After the appeals court’s decision, CRST agreed to pay Ms. Starke $50,000 to settle Ms. Starke’s case, which most people would interpret as a victory for Ms. Starke.

The EEOC decided it could not proceed with respect to O’Donnell complaint, citing the “law of the case.” This presumably refers to Judge Reade’s ruling that the EEOC was required to directly engage in “conciliation” with CRST on each complaint.

Which left Ms. Jones as the sole surviving plaintiff.

Even though  the appeals court ruled in the EEOC’s favor with respect to several issues, Judge Reade ruled CRST was the ‘prevailing party” in the case and was entitled to almost $5 million in fees and costs.

The final award to CRST is actually larger than the earlier award because Judge Reade included fees and costs expended by CRST related to the appeal.

Judge Reade was appointed to the federal court in 2002 after being nominated by President George W. Bush.

Appeals Court Puts Judge on Hot Seat in Trucking Case

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit has rejected an order requiring the EEOC to pay $4.7 million in attorney fees and costs  to CRST Van Expedited, Inc., one of the nation’s leading transport companies, in an egregious sexual harassment case involving female truck driver trainees.

This lawsuit, perhaps more than any other in recent history, demonstrates the extent to which federal courts have moved away from the worthy goal of addressing serious employment discrimination to engaging in pro-business partisanship, sweeping generalizations and moronic procedural disputes.  It also raises questions about whether the EEOC, in the current environment, can actually carry out its goal of promoting  more strategic use of agency resources by emphasizing high stakes litigation involving multiple victims.

At various points, Chief Judge Linda R. Reade of the U.S. District Court of Iowa dismissed all of the 154 plaintiffs in the EEOC case and  ruled the agency  must pay CRST, one of the nation’s leading transport company, a whopping $4.7 million in attorneys’ fees and costs.

The 8th Circuit’s ruling constitutes a step in the right direction. The appeals court remanded the case back to the district court with instructions to reassess the attorney’s fee award. Among other things, the appeals court is asking Reade to explain why she dismissed dozens of sexual harassment claims as frivolous, unreasonable or ungrounded.  Moreover, the Court rejected Reade’s award of attorney fees with respect to 67 claimants whom Reade dismissed from the case under a controversial ‘failure to conciliate” theory.

Several federal circuits have ruled the EEOC must engage in individual conciliation or negotiations with an employer with respect to each and every claim in a class action lawsuit, even if the employer has indicated no willingness to settle.  This requirement allows guilty employers to delay adjudicting the issue of discrimination, constitutes a colossal waste of  EEOC resources, and ultimately severely limits the agency’s ability to file class action employment discrimination lawsuits.

Reade dismissed  67 potential class members from the CRST lawsuit on the grounds that the EEOC failed to engage in  “bona fide” conciliation efforts with CRST. She did not even consider the merits of the plaintiff’s claims, some of which involved shocking allegations of sexual harassment and abuse lodged by female truck driver trainees who were stranded in isolated conditions on the road.  These women alleged that CRST did little or nothing in response to their complaints.

The 8th Circuit ruled that the EEOC’s duty to conciliate does not constitute an element of a claim. Therefore, the appeals court said , the EEOC didn’t lose those 67 claims and the CRST was not a prevailing party with respect to those claims.  The appeals court concluded that CRST is not entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees for the claims dismissed under the “failure to conciliate” theory.

[Read more…]

Is the EEOC’s Strategic Plan Enforceable?

Hostile Courts Present Obstacle to Success

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity (EEOC) has come under attack in recent weeks in federal courts, raising questions about its ability  to implement its new strategy of filing systemic lawsuits.

Earlier this month, Judge Roger Titus of the U.S. District Court for the EEOCDistrict of Maryland dismissed a nationwide pattern or practice lawsuit brought by the EEOC that alleged that Freeman, Inc., a service provider for corporate events, unlawfully relied upon credit and criminal background checks that caused a disparate impact against African-American, Hispanic, and male job applicants. See EEOC v. Freeman, No. 09-CV-2573 (2013),

In another case,  EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc.,  Chief Judge Linda R. Reade of the U.S. District Court of Iowa ruled  that the  Commission  must pay CRST, one of the nation’s leading transport companies,  a judgment of $4,694,422.14  stemming from a lawsuit filed by the EEOC alleging sex discrimination on behalf of  trainee Monika Starke and other similarly situated employees.  She had earlier dismissed the lawsuit.

In their decisions, the judges eviscerate the performance of the EEOC, the federal agency that is responsible for enforcing the nation’s discrimination laws.

All of this occurs in a climate that is not favorable to workers’ rights.   The U.S. Supreme Court is the most anti-employee court in modern history and has issued  decisions this year making it more difficult for workers to win class action and  discrimination cases. Research also shows that discrimination cases are dismissed at a higher rate in federal court  than other types of cases. 

Freeman

In the Freeman decision, Judge Titus points to the seeming irony of the EEOC’s goal of  prohibiting  background checks in hiring.   He notes the EEOC conducts criminal background investigations as a condition of employment for all positions and conducts credit background checks on approximately 90 percent of its positions. Judge Titus acknowledged that credit and criminal background checks adversely affect some groups  more than others but maintained that these checks are essential.  According to Judge Titus:

 “Because of the higher rate of incarceration of African-Americans than Caucasians, indiscriminate use of criminal history information might have the predictable result of excluding African-Americans at a higher rate than Caucasian. Indeed, the higher rate might cause one to fear that any use of criminal history information would be in violation of Title VII.  However, this is simply not the case. Careful and appropriate use of criminal history information is an important, and in many cases essential, part of the employment process of employers throughout the United States …”

Judge Titus also bashed  the expert report prepared by Dr. Kevin R. Murphy, the EEOC’s statistical expert. He excluded it as evidence in the case on the grounds that  Murphy used an incomplete and inaccurate database. The  EEOC blamed  Freeman for failing to produce sufficient  information during discovery.

CRST

In the CRST case, Judge Reade castigated  the EEOC for failing to properly identify  potential class members. She expressed concern that the EEOC subjected CRST to a “moving target’ of prospective plaintiffs.”  

Judge Reade dismissed  more 67 potential class members from the lawsuit because the EEOC failed to  “conciliate” or attempt to reach a settlement in those cases –even though the EEOC took the position that this was not required.

Fair?

Whether or not these federal judges were fair to the EEOC,  the dismissals are disconcerting.  They represent a huge expenditure of scarce federal resources to combat a huge national  problem – employment discrimination and harassment. The number of lawsuits filed by the EEOC has declined dramatically over the years, from a high of 465 in 1999 to 155 in 2012.   

The EEOC last year  approved a Strategic Enforcement Plan to promote  more strategic use of agency resources.

The EEOC’s budget  has generally increased  in recent years – until last year. The EEOC’s budget was $341,900 million in 2009; $367,303 million in 2010; $385,303 in 2011; and $ 373,711 in 2012.