United States: Supreme Court Leaves Massive Attorney's Fee Award Against EEOC Unresolved

But Decision Could Still Be Helpful For Employers

Today, in a unanimous 8-0 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to issue a definitive ruling on whether an employer is entitled to recover nearly $5 million dollars in attorney's fees and costs from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) after the employer prevailed in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by the agency. The Court remanded the case back to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals to determine, among other things, whether the EEOC's conduct in the litigation was "frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless" such to support the fee award. However, the Court did rule that employers could be considered prevailing parties and entitled to fees even if they do not win "on the merits," which could prove to be a useful ruling.

Today's decision means that, after a decade of litigation, the longstanding battle for fees will continue (CRST Van Expedited, Inc. v. EEOC).

Employer Wins Case And Sought $4.7 Million

CRST is one of the country's largest interstate transit and logistics companies, employing over 2,500 long haul truck drivers. In December 2005, a former CRST driver trainee named Monika Starke filed an EEOC charge of discrimination alleging that she was subjected to sexual harassment during the new driver training program. The EEOC investigated her charge of discrimination and made a determination that Ms. Starke was not the only female employee subjected to such conduct.

After making a reasonable cause determination and failing to successfully conciliate Ms. Starke's matter, the EEOC brought suit against CRST on behalf of Ms. Starke and a class of other unnamed female employees. In the lawsuit, the EEOC alleged that CRST subjected numerous female employees to a hostile work environment based on sex in violation of Title VII. 

After two years of litigating the case, the EEOC was ordered by the court to provide a full list of the women it claimed were part of the class of plaintiffs; the agency turned in a list of 270 names. But during the course of the litigation, over 200 of the named women ceased to be part of the action – some had their claims dismissed based on defense motions, some had their claims voluntarily dropped by the EEOC, others lost out due to discovery sanctions, and Ms. Starke herself settled her case for a payment of $50,000.

At this point, it became clear that the EEOC had concededly failed to investigate, provide a cause determination, or attempt to conciliate the individual claims of the remaining 67 women. Accordingly, the district court dismissed these claims based on the EEOC's flagrant disregard of its statutory obligations, and eventually awarded the employer $4.7 million dollars in attorney's fees, expenses, and costs incurred defending the EEOC's defeated claims. The agency appealed this decision, which was reported as one of the largest-ever fee awards assessed against the EEOC.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the EEOC and reversed the award of attorney's fees. It held that the employer was not entitled to recover any amount because it had not technically prevailed "on the merits" of the case against the 67 women. Instead, the court ruled that the portion of the case brought on behalf of these plaintiffs was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, which did not entitle CRST to a fee award. The employer appealed the matter to the Supreme Court, which ruled on the matter today, over 10 years after Ms. Starke originally initiated her claim.

SCOTUS Punts Fee Award Ruling

Title VII states that prevailing parties can be awarded their attorney fees in certain circumstances. A 1978 Supreme Court case (Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC) established the standard for defendants to recover fees, saying they could only do so if the court finds the plaintiff's claim to be "frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation."

Thus, the Supreme Court's task in this case boiled down to answering three questions. Was CRST a "prevailing party" despite the fact that there had never been a judicial determination in its favor on the merits of the sexual harassment claim? Was the district court's judgment in dismissing a majority of the EEOC's claims in fact preclusive? And had the EEOC acted "frivolously, unreasonably, or without foundation" in litigating a large class action without having conducted proper pre-litigation procedures for 67 plaintiffs?

Today, the Court concluded that CRST may be the prevailing party even where it prevails on a nonmerits-based ruling, but the Court declined to make a determination on the last two issues and remanded the case to the 8th Circuit to make further rulings. The employer will have to continue to battle in its quest to recover the nearly $5 million from the EEOC.

Silver Lining For Employers

However, there is good news for employers. As noted, the Court ruled that CRST could be the prevailing party despite the fact that the EEOC obtained a favorable $50,000 settlement on behalf of one claimant, Ms. Starke, and despite the fact that no judge or jury had ever affirmatively concluded that the sexual harassment claim should be decided in the employer's favor. Specifically, the Court held that "a defendant need not obtain a favorable judgment on the merits in order to be a prevailing party." 

Indeed, Justice Kennedy wrote, the "defendant may prevail even if the court's final judgment rejects the plaintiff's claims for a nonmerits reason." In vacating the 8th Circuit's ruling on that subject, the Court affirmed its prior decision in Christiansburg and held that a prevailing defendant is entitled to recover fees and costs "whenever the plaintiff's claim was frivolous, unreasonable or groundless."

Essentially, this means that an employer may be designated as the prevailing party where the plaintiff's or EEOC's claims are dismissed on procedural grounds not related to the substantive Title VII claim. This could arise where the employer successfully argues that the claims should be dismissed because they are moot, barred by the statute of limitations, blocked on sovereign immunity grounds, or rejected for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, among other things.   

What Does This Mean For Employers?

While today's decision is not a clean-sweep victory for employers, the Court did affirmatively set forth the standard by which employers will be deemed to be considered "prevailing parties" under Title VII. This allows a clear avenue for employers to recover their costs and attorney's fees even where the ultimate dismissal of the Title VII claims are for nonmerits reasons not based on the substantive merits of the action.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.