On November 19, 2015, the EEOC released its annual 2015 Performance and Accountability Report (“PAR”). The Report reflects the progress of the EEOC’s continued efforts to meet the enforcement priorities outlined in its 2012 strategic enforcement plan (“SEP”), including its systemic litigation initiative. For employers, this is perhaps the most important document issued by the Commission. In short, it should be required reading for corporate counsel and professionals involved in compliance efforts relative to workplace litigation issues.

In its SEP, among other things, the EEOC underscored its efforts to champion bigger, more media-focused “systemic” cases, including pattern or practice cases where the alleged discrimination “has a broad impact on an industry, occupation, business, or geographic area.” In the SEP, the EEOC set forth a goal to ensure that systemic cases make up at least 20% of its annual litigation docket and at least 22% to 24% of its litigation docket by 2016. (Read more here.)

As background, the PAR is a “scorecard” of sorts for the EEOC. It provides a report on its activities during the past fiscal year, from October 1, 2014 through September 30, 2015, including its progress toward meeting the goals outlined in the SEP, and provides a preview of what we can expect to see from the EEOC in the upcoming months.

In sum, although the Report acknowledges that the EEOC filed fewer systemic lawsuits in FY 2015, the number of systemic investigations and recoveries exceeded FY 2014 levels. Despite significant setbacks in FY 2014 (read more here), the agency’s statistics trumpeted in the PAR show that, rather than backing down, the EEOC was inspired to be even more aggressive in FY 2015.

The EEOC’s Overall Results

The EEOC’s results reflect a mixed bag for employers.  The EEOC’s totals represent a slight increase in charges filed (93,727 in 2013, compared with 88,778 in 2014, and 89,385 in 2015), and a slight increase in merits lawsuits (131 in 2013, compared with 133 in 2014, and 142 merits lawsuits in 2015).

However, the EEOC’s report reflects a steady decrease in the number of systemic lawsuits, both in the number filed (21 in 2013, compared with 17 in 2014, and 16 in 2015), and in the number of systemic lawsuits on-going in the court system (54 in 2013, compared with 57 in 2014, and 48 in 2015).

Although the agency completed more systemic investigations in 2015 than it completed in 2014, the EEOC’s numbers did not meet 2013 levels. In 2015, the agency completed more investigations than it completed in 2014, but fewer investigations than it completed in 2013 (300 in 2013, compared with 260 in 2014, and 268 in 2015).  The agency recovered more as a result of those investigations than it recovered in 2014, but less than it recovered in 2013 ($63 million in 2013, compared with $13 million in 2014, and $40 million in 2015).

Charges:   A Bigger Backlog

The EEOC reported that it received 89,385 charges alleging employment discrimination in 2015.  The number was up slightly over the number received in 2014 (88,778), but remains below the record-breaking recession-period numbers that we saw between 2008 and 2013.  During those years, the numbers steadily rose from 95,402 in 2008, to 93,277 in 2009, to 99,922 in 2010, and 99,947 in 2011, before starting a gradual decline to 99,412 in 2012 to 93,727 in 2013.

As of the end of FY 2015, the EEOC had a backlog of 76,408 charges, a slight increase of 750 charges over the backlog at the conclusion of FY 2014.

Settlements: Recoveries Soar

In its Report, the EEOC reported a surge in the total amount of monetary settlements.  Its administrative enforcement program produced $356.6 million from claim resolutions, up over $60 million from the $296.1 million that it collected in FY 2014.  The EEOC resolved 155 merits lawsuits in the federal district courts, for a total monetary recovery of $65.3 million, a substantial increase ($42.8 million) over the $22.5 million that it collected during FY 2014.  In addition, the EEOC resolved 6,360 complaints and secured more than $94.9 million in relief for federal employees and applicants who requested hearings in FY 2015.

Lawsuits: More Suits, Smaller Share Of Systemic Cases

In its 2015 PAR, the EEOC reported that, during fiscal year 2015, the EEOC filed 142 merits lawsuits, including 100 individual suits, and 42 suits involving “discriminatory policies or multiple victims,” of which 16 (or 11%) involved challenges to alleged systemic discrimination. According to the EEOC, in the 16 systemic lawsuits, the EEOC challenged a variety of types of alleged systemic discrimination, including an alleged age-based refusal to hire, a refusal to accommodate religious beliefs, an imposition of unnecessary medical restrictions, and a systematic failure to maintain records.

Whereas these numbers reflect an upward trend in the number of merits lawsuits, the growth of systemic lawsuits was stagnant. In 2013, the EEOC reported that it had filed 131 merits lawsuits, compared with 133 merits lawsuits in 2014, and 142 merits lawsuits in 2015.  However, in 2013, the EEOC reported that 21 (16%) of those lawsuits were systemic suits, compared with 17 (13%) systemic lawsuits in 2014, and 16 (11%) systemic lawsuits in 2015.  These numbers might explain the agency’s effort in 2015 to report 40 (18.3%) “multiple victim” cases.

At the end of FY 2015, the EEOC had 218 cases on its active district court docket, of which 48 (22%) involved challenges to systemic discrimination. These numbers also reflect a decrease over the past two years.  At the end of FY 2013, the agency had 231 cases on its active docket, of which 54 (23%) involved challenges to systemic discrimination.  At the end of 2014, the agency had 228 cases on its active docket, of which 57 (or 25%) involved challenges to systemic discrimination.

Our “peek behind the numbers” suggests that the Commission’s prosecution of systemic lawsuits has stressed its budget, attorney workloads, and overall capacities. Big cases equate to significant hours of attorney time, and the EEOC’s capacity to file and prosecute an increasing number of systemic lawsuits has hit somewhat of a ceiling or cap due to budgetary and attorney workload limitations.

Systemic Investigations

With respect to investigations in FY 2015, the agency reported that it completed 268 systemic investigations and issued 109 cause findings. It resolved 70 systemic investigations by voluntary conciliation agreements and obtained over $33.5 million in remedies as a result of its systemic initiative.

While reflecting an increase over FY 2014, these numbers still did not achieve the agency’s FY 2013 results. One year ago, the EEOC reported completing only 260 systemic investigations and securing only $13 million in monetary relief. At the end of 2013, the EEOC had launched 300 systemic investigations, resulting in 63 settlements or conciliation agreements, and had recovered approximately $40 million in remedies.

Overall Implications For Employers

Do these numbers mean that the EEOC is backing off its systemic initiative? Not a chance in our view.  Although the EEOC filed fewer systemic lawsuits in FY 2015, the number of systemic investigations and recoveries exceeded FY 2014 levels, and its recoveries represented a climb toward its FY 2013 numbers. As we predicted a year ago, rather than backing down, these numbers signal that the EEOC’s FY 2014 defeats inspired it to more aggressively pursue its agenda.

We expect the EEOC to continue to search for and to initiate systemic investigations to continue this upward trend in 2016. In its FY 2015 PAR, the EEOC continued to highlight its emphasis on “maximizing [its] impact” through its focus on systemic discrimination. The EEOC noted that, at the end of FY 2015, it employed more lead systemic investigators “whose work is dedicated exclusively to development and coordination of systemic investigations,” and more social science research staff.

The EEOC also noted that it continued its efforts to develop means to coordinate systemic investigations across offices. In particular, the EEOC reported that its Systemic Watch List, a software tool that matches ongoing investigations or lawsuits, has “proven integral” to improved coordination. The EEOC also reported that it completed its expansion of the CaseWorks system, a “central shared source of litigation support tools” that facilitate the collection and review of electronic discovery and enable “collaboration” in the development of cases for litigation.

In short, we do not expect the EEOC to back off its systemic initiative in 2016, but to be more aggressive in pursuing those cases that fit within its agenda. So numbers aside, these metrics reflect an agency committed to “big impact” lawsuits that “send a message” to the employer community.