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.

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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.