Seyfarth Synopsis: In the latest chapter of the ongoing legal battle between the EEOC and delivery company CRST Van Expedited regarding the agency's sexual harassment claims, a federal district court ordered the EEOC to pay $1.9 million in attorneys' fees to the company for pursuing claims that it knew or should have known were frivolous.
Employers should have this ruling handy when challenging whether the EEOC fulfilled its pre-suit obligations under Title VII. It is undoubtedly a signal ruling relative to the agency's missteps in "suing now and aiming later..."
In a long and winding legal journey that made a pit stop at the U.S. Supreme Court, the EEOC v. v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc., No. 07-CV-95, 2017 LEXIS 155134 (N.D. Iowa Sept. 22, 2017), litigation involves the largest fee sanction award ever levied against the EEOC – nearly $4.7 million. In August 2013, after the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa imposed the nearly $4.7 million award, the EEOC appealed, and the Eighth Circuit reversed and remanded several fee issues for further proceedings. Id. at *2. Following CRST's appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded the Eighth Circuit's ruling. On remand, the Eighth Circuit vacated its prior judgment and remanded back to the District Court. Thereafter, CRST moved for a supplemental fee award in the amount of approximately $975,000, consisting of attorneys' fees for work performed in the case following the District Court's August 1, 2013 Order. Judge Linda R. Reade of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa ordered the EEOC to pay approximately $1.9 million in attorneys' fees, out-of-pocket expenses and taxable costs to CRST, but denied CRST's motion for a supplemental fee award.
For employers embroiled in EEOC litigation, the $1.9 million fee award is an exceedingly important example of a court holding the Commission accountable when it fails to satisfy its pre-suit investigation duties under Title VII.
As we discussed in our blog post here, Section 706(k) authorizes district courts to award attorneys' fees to the "prevailing party" in a Title VII case. In relevant part, Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 421 (1978) held that fee awards to a prevailing defendant are permissible only if the plaintiff's lawsuit was "frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation." After CRST successfully obtained the dismissal of the EEOC's Title VII claims for sexual harassment, the District Court granted CRST's motion for an award of attorneys' fees and costs and directed the EEOC to pay CRST nearly $4.7 million, finding that the EEOC's actions in pursuing this lawsuit were unreasonable, contrary to the procedure outlined by Title VII, and imposed an unnecessary burden on both CRST and the District Court.
After the EEOC appealed, the Eighth Circuit reversed and held that the District Court "did not make particularized findings of frivolousness, unreasonableness, or groundlessness as to each individual claim" and remanded these claims to the District Court to make such individualized determinations. Further, the Eighth Circuit found that the District Court's dismissal of 67 claims based on the EEOC's failure to satisfy Title VII's pre-suit obligations did not constitute a ruling on the merits, and that therefore, CRST was not a prevailing party as to these claims. The Eighth Circuit also held that CRST could not satisfy the Christianburg standard for the same reason: "[P]roof that a plaintiff's case is frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless is not possible without a judicial determination of the plaintiff's case on the merits." Thereafter, following CRST's petition for certiorari, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted the case for review.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Eighth Circuit and remanded the case for further proceedings. Id. at *5. On June 28, 2016, the Eighth Circuit entered a judgment vacating its prior panel opinion and remanding to the District Court for further proceedings. The District Court ordered briefing on the issues remanded by the U.S. Supreme Court, where CRST requested an additional a supplemental fee award in the amount of approximately $975,000, consisting of attorneys' fees for work performed in the case following the District Court's August 1, 2013 Order.
The Court's Decision
On September 22, 2017, the District Court awarded nearly $1.9 million in attorneys' fees, out-of-pocket expenses and taxable costs to CRST, but denied CRST's motion for a supplemental fee award. In ordering the $1.9 million award, the District Court found that CRST was the prevailing party as to the sixty-seven claims at issue, that the sixty-seven claims met the standard announced in Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412 (1978), and made individualized findings as to seventy-eight of the individual claimants for which the court granted CRST summary judgment. Id. at *5-6.
CRST had moved for a supplemental fee award of $975,000 for the following work it performed: (1) briefs, oral argument, and rehearing petition in the EEOC's appeal to the Eighth Circuit from the August 1, 2013 Order; (2) CRST's petition for certiorari, briefs, and oral argument in the Supreme Court resulting in reversal of the Eighth Circuit's opinion vacating the August 1, 2013 fee award; (3) CRST's brief resisting the Rule 60(b) Motion; and (4) CRST's briefs on remand as required by the Eighth Circuit's now vacated decision with respect to the fees awarded for claims dismissed on summary judgment. Id. at *6-7. The EEOC argued that CRST's application for fees was untimely and that CRST could not demonstrate that any of the actions that the EEOC took with respect to the requested categories of fees were frivolous, unreasonable or groundless. The EEOC further argued that the fees sought by CRST were unreasonable.
Regarding timeliness, the District Court accepted the EEOC's argument and held that CRST's motion for a supplemental fee award was filed more than 120 days after the latest final judgment for which CRST requests attorneys' fees. Regarding the EEOC's argument that the fees sought by CRST were unreasonable, the District Court similarly found in favor of the EEOC, noting that neither its appeal of the District Court's fee award to the Eighth Circuit nor CRST's appeal to the Supreme Court were amenable to fees. Id. at *12-13. Accordingly, the District Court denied CRST's motion for a supplemental fee award.
Implications For Employers
Although the formerly $4.7 million fee sanction against the EEOC was reduced to $1.9 million, this is nonetheless a major victory for employers. This ruling will serve as a cautionary tale for the EEOC when it attempts to speed through its mandatory pre-suit duties in rushes to the courthouse to litigate claims. For employers who are blindsided by such EEOC tactics, this ruling can be used as precedent to hold the Commission accountable when it abandons its pre-suit duties required under Title VII.
Readers can also find this blog post on our EEOC Countdown Blog here.
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