United States: What 2016 Governmental Enforcement Litigation Trends Suggest For Employers In 2017

Last Updated: March 22 2017
Article by Gerald L. Maatman Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Governmental enforcement litigation was a mixed bag in 2016. The U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL") and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") continued their aggressive enforcement programs, but their effectiveness was down "by the numbers" as compared to previous years. What does this mean for 2017?  In the 6th and final installment in our series of blog postings on workplace class action trends, we examine what employers are likely to see in 2017 on the government enforcement litigation front.

Introduction

Government enforcement lawsuits brought by the DOL and EEOC continued the aggressive litigation programs of both agencies, but by sheer numbers of cases, their enforcement activities were arguably limited in their effectiveness, at least when measured by lawsuit filings and recoveries compared to previous years. Settlement numbers for government enforcement litigation in 2016 decreased substantially as compared to 2015, as did the litigation dockets of the DOL and the EEOC. This trends is aptly illustrated by a comparison of settlement recoveries over the past 7 years. Settlement recoveries in 2016 were the second lowest of any year during that period.

This trend is critical to employers, as both agencies have a focus on "big impact" lawsuits against companies and "lead by example" in terms of areas that the private plaintiffs' bar aims to pursue. The content and scope of enforcement litigation undertaken by the DOL and the EEOC in the Trump Administration remains to be seen; most believe there will be wholesale changes, which may well prompt the private plaintiffs' class action bar to "fill the void" and expand the volume of litigation pursued against employers over the coming year.

Governmental Enforcement Litigation Trends In 2016

On the governmental enforcement front, both the EEOC and the DOL intensified the focus of their administrative enforcement activities and litigation filings in 2016.  At the same time, the number of lawsuits filed and the resulting recoveries by settlement – measured by aggregate litigation filings and the top 10 settlements in government enforcement litigation – were less than half of what the EEOC and DOL achieved in 2015.

The EEOC's lawsuit count dropped precipitously. By continuing to follow through on the systemic enforcement and litigation strategy plan it announced in April of 2006 (that centers on the government bringing more systemic discrimination cases affecting large numbers of workers), the EEOC filed less cases overall but more systemic lawsuits. This manifested the notion that the Commission's limited budget and bandwidth are best deployed to matters where a systemic focus is most needed and the largest numbers of alleged victims are at issue.  As 2016 demonstrated, the EEOC's prosecution of pattern or practice lawsuits is now an agency-wide priority backed up by the numbers.  Many of the high-level investigations started in the last three years mushroomed into the institution of EEOC pattern or practice lawsuits in 2016. These numbers are shown by the following chart:

EEOC Systemic Cases: Filed, Resolved, And On Active Docket
FY 2013 – 2016

The Commission's 2016 Annual Report also announced that it expects to continue the dramatic shift in the composition of its litigation docket from small individual cases to systemic pattern or practice lawsuits on behalf of larger groups of workers.  The EEOC's FY 2016 Annual Report detailed the EEOC's activities from October 1, 2015 to September 30, 2016.  The EEOC's Report indicated that:

  • The Commission completed work on 273 systemic investigations in FY 2016, which resulted in 21 settlements or conciliation agreements that yielded a total recovery of $20.5 million for systemic claims; six of the settlements involved 50 alleged victims or more, and 13 settlements included 20 or more alleged victims. The FY 2016 recoveries represent a decrease of systemic recoveries in FY 2015 when the Commission netted $33 million based on resolution of systemic investigations.
  • The EEOC recovered $347.9 million for alleged victims of employment discrimination in FY 2016 through mediation, conciliation, and settlements. This represented a decrease of $10.4 million as compared to FY 2015, when the Commission garnered $356.6 million for its enforcement efforts.
  • For its lawsuits, the EEOC secured $58.3 million in recoveries in FY 2016.  This figure was down $7 million as compared to the FY 2015 recoveries of $65.3 million. However, the EEOC resolved fewer lawsuits than it did last year, and recovered less money from those cases.  Specifically, the EEOC resolved 139 lawsuits during FY 2016 for a total recovery of $52.2 million; by comparison, the EEOC resolved 155 lawsuits in FY 2015 for a total recovery of $65.3 million.
  • The EEOC filed only 86 lawsuits in 2016 (down significantly from the 139 lawsuits it filed in 2015), of which 31 were "multiple victim" lawsuits, with 18 cases involved claims of systemic discrimination on behalf of 20 or more workers, and 13 cases involved multiple alleged discrimination victims of up to 20 individuals.  The EEOC had 165 cases on its active lawsuit docket by year end (down from FY 2015, when it had 218 cases on its docket, of which 48% involved multiple aggrieved parties and 28.5% involved challenges to alleged systemic discrimination).  Overall, this represented increases in these categories in terms of the make-up of the Commission's litigation being tilted more heavily toward systemic cases.
  • The EEOC also received 91,503 administrative charges of discrimination, which was slightly up from the FY 2015 total of 89,385 charges and the FY 2014 total of 88,778 charges. Thus, charge activity was one of the heaviest in the 52 year history of the Commission.
  • The EEOC also encountered significant criticism in the manner in which it enforced anti-discrimination laws.  This criticism took various forms in terms of judicial sanctions, suits against the Commission by private litigants and States, and questioning by Congress over the EEOC's alleged lack of transparency.

While the inevitable by-product of these governmental enforcement efforts is that employers are likely to face bigger lawsuits on behalf of larger groups of workers in 2017, the EEOC's systemic litigation program is not without its detractors.  Several federal judges entered significant sanctions against the EEOC – some in excess of seven figures – for its pursuit of pattern or practice cases that were deemed to be without a good faith basis in fact or law. The U.S. Supreme Court in EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc., 136 S. Ct. 1642 (2016), examined the propriety of the $4.7 million fee sanction, the largest fee sanction ever leveled against the Commission; while the EEOC had been successful in its initial appeal in reversing the sanction before the Eighth Circuit, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the EEOC's position, remanded the fee sanction issue for review, and gave new life to the employer's efforts to recoup millions of dollars against the Commission.

Fiscal year 2016 also marked another year in the EEOC's 2012-2016 Strategic Enforcement Plan ("SEP").  The SEP was created in 2012 as a blueprint to guide the EEOC's enforcement activity.  Its most controversial and perhaps most far-reaching effect on the agency's activity is the priority it gives to systemic cases: those pattern or practice, policy, or class-like cases where the alleged discrimination has a broad impact on an industry, profession, company, or geographic area.  Systemic cases have been the main driver of EEOC litigation over the past few years, and likely will be well into the future.  The EEOC is now fighting challenges to its power to bring those cases on a number of fronts.  Among other things, it is aggressively challenging any court's ability to review how it conducts certain statutorily-mandated procedures before bringing suit, including how it investigates its cases and tries to conciliate those cases with employers.  If successful in those efforts, the EEOC will have greatly eased its path to pursuing systemic cases.

The EEOC is not only expanding its reach in procedural terms, but also it is attempting to broaden the scope of its authority through an expansion of the scope of anti-discrimination laws themselves.  In a number of recent cases, the EEOC has advanced novel legal theories that would, among other things, expand anti-discrimination protections to cover transgender employees and require employers to reasonably accommodate pregnant employees, even those who are experiencing normal pregnancies.  The EEOC continued to push the edge of the legal envelope in 2016, viewing itself as an agency that not only enforces the law, but also one that expands the scope of those laws as it deems appropriate.

For this and other reasons, the agency has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism by Republican members of Congress, business groups, and critics of an allegedly activist agency wasting the taxpayers' dollars.  Such criticism is unlikely to stem the tide of systemic cases or deter the EEOC from continuing to try to expand its enforcement powers.  Subject to policy-directed changes mandated by the Trump Administration, employers can expect the EEOC will use the next year to continue to push for expansion of its procedural and substantive limits.

The DOL also undertook aggressive enforcement activities in 2016.

The Wage & Hour Division ("WHD") kept up its aggressive enforcement actions in 2016, particularly in the hotel, restaurant, and retail industries.  Much of WHD's enforcement and other activities took place under the umbrella of "fissured industries" initiatives, which focus on industries with high usage of franchising, sub-contracting, and independent contractors.  At the conclusion of those enforcement actions, WHD continued to increase its use of civil money penalties, liquidated damages, and enhanced compliance agreements.

Legislatures and government agencies in various states and municipalities also increased their activities on the wage & hour front.  Whether increasing the minimum or living wage, enacting scheduling laws and ordinances, implementing wage theft prohibitions, or increasing the minimum salary level required for exemption, many have already revised or are actively planning to revise laws and rules governing how businesses pay employees in 2017.

With the approaching ten-year anniversary of the last time Congress enacted a minimum wage increase (2007), advocates of a minimum wage increase are likely to turn up the volume on their requests for an increase to the federal minimum wage in 2017.  This may well depend on the politics of the debate, for the incoming Republican Administration appears opposed to such an increase.

Finally, if history is a guide, the incoming Administration is likely to return to the decades-old practice of issuing opinion letters in response to specific requests, which had been abandoned by the Obama Administration's decision-makers at the DOL.

Over the past several years, the DOL's Wage & Hour Division ("WHD") fundamentally changed the way in which it pursues its investigations.  Suffice to say, the investigations are more searching and extensive, and often result in higher monetary penalties for employers. According to the DOL, since early 2009, the WHD has closed 200,000 cases nationwide, resulting in more than $1.8 billion in back wages for over 2 million workers.  In FY 2016, the WHD collected more than $266.5 million in back pay wages, an increase of $20.5 million over the past year. Hence, in 2016, employers finally saw the impact of these changes on the WHD's enforcement priorities, and 2017 is apt to bring much of the same absent a stark change in priorities under the Trump Administration.

The DOL also focused its activities in 2016 on wage & hour enforcement on what it terms "24/7." The WHD's Administrator, Dr. David Weil, was an architect of the WHD's fissured industry initiative.  This initiative focuses on several priority industries, including food services (both limited service/full service establishments), hotel/motel, residential construction, janitorial services, moving companies/logistics providers, agricultural products, landscaping/horticultural services, healthcare services, home healthcare services, grocery stores, and retail trade.  In FY 2016, the WHD reported recoveries of $143,274,845 for nearly 19,000 workers within these fissured industries.

Not to be outdone, the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB") undertook an ambitious agenda in 2016 too.  It reconsidered well-settled NLRB principles on joint employer rules and representative elections, entertained the possibility of extending the protections of the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA") to college athletes, and litigated novel claims seeking to hold franchisors liable for the personnel decisions of franchisees. More than any other area impacting workplace litigation, the NLRB also remained steadfast in its view that workplace arbitration agreements limiting class or collective claims are void under § 7 of the NLRA. It pursued a myriad of unfair labor practice charges against employers for alleged violation of the NLRA for use of arbitration agreements with class action and collective action waivers.

Implications For Employers In 2017?

So what are employers likely to see in 2017 on the government enforcement litigation front? In the early days of the Trump Administration, clear direction on litigation policy remain unclear. Most pundits believe that employers can expect less litigation and less regulation than during the Obama Administration. Furthermore, the phenomenon of "regulation by enforcement litigation" is likely no longer the by-product of the DOL and the EEOC's enforcement litigation programs. Most likely, control of agency budgets may well provide the lever that the Trump White House may use to force its policy choices upon the government enforcement litigation programs of the DOL and the EEOC.

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.

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Gerald L. Maatman Jr.
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