As the clock ticked down on the EEOC’s fiscal year (which ended on September 30), we are struck once again by the eerily consistent trend in the agency’s federal court filing trends. Employers around the country are seemingly trapped in the “Groundhog’s-day-like” loop that occurs each September. FY2015 was a blockbuster year in major EEOC-litigation decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court on down, leaving many areas of the law in flux. But one thing has remained constant: as we have reported for several years (see here, here, and here), the EEOC has once again rushed to file a blitz of federal court complaints just under the fiscal year wire.

Although we expect some additional filings will continue to filter in overnight, as the courts on the West Coast closed for the day, the raw numbers show that the EEOC filed 157 lawsuits in FY2015 (up from the 145 filed in FY2014). But most significantly, in the last 48 hours of its fiscal year alone, the EEOC launched 27 cases from coast to coast. Indeed, as the following graph depicts, the EEOC filed more complaints in the last quarter of FY2015 than the entire rest of the year put together.

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Where Was The EEOC’s Subject Matter Focus In FY2015?

We have once again crunched the numbers underlying the EEOC’s FY2015 filings to tease out where the EEOC is focusing its substantive enforcement efforts. We have analyzed the EEOC’s FY2015 filings according to the statutes pursued and the theories of discrimination that it has alleged. The following two charts show our breakdown of the EEOC’s filings in FY2015 by statute, and then a further breakdown of Title VII cases by discrimination theory.

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We continue to see the same focus on sex/pregnancy discrimination and disability discrimination that we have seen in prior years. This year sex/pregnancy discrimination cases made up 54% of all Title VII filings, roughly on par with the 55% in FY2014. ADA cases made up 36% of all EEOC filings, which is also fairly consistent with previous years. (Disability cases made up 32% of all EEOC filings in FY2014, and 36% in FY2013.)

Suits alleging discrimination on the basis of race, however, are back on the upswing. Race discrimination cases were somewhat underrepresented last year as compared to earlier years. There were 15 race discrimination cases launched in FY2014, as compared with 17 in FY2013. This year, there were 24 lawsuits filed alleging race discrimination, which amounts to 26% of all Title VII filings.

Our analysis of the filings also confirms yet again that the likelihood of being tagged by the EEOC is not unlike the real estate market — it is all about location, location, location. Certain district offices emerge from the pack both in terms of the sheer number of case filings and the aggressiveness with which they pursue those cases. Here is this year’s breakdown by district office.

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As with prior years, the Chicago office, led by regional attorney John Hendrickson, is on top with 26 filings in FY2015, the same number that it filed in FY2014. The Philadelphia and Phoenix offices also continued their historical trend of filing a large number of cases. Those offices racked up 18 and 16 filings in FY 2015, respectively, as compared to the 17 and 14 from FY2014. The Indianapolis and Charlotte offices rounded out the top five with 13 filings each. Last year, we noted that the New York office had a new regional attorney appointed in May 2014, and we wondered whether he would continue that office’s tradition of aggressive enforcement. If FY2015 is any indication, we now know the answer: the New York office was quite active in FY2015, filing 10 cases – two more than it filed in FY2014. The office earning the “biggest mover” honors is Los Angeles, jumping over 400% from only two cases in FY2014 to nine in FY2015 – still modest in comparison to some of the perennially active offices, but a trend to watch for our West Coast readers.

Old Questions Answered; New Questions Raised

We are now entering the final years of the EEOC’s 2012 Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”) The SEP was issued by the EEOC in 2012 as the blueprint to guide its enforcement initiatives from 2012 through 2016. We closely followed the SEP through its stages of development, and, to a large extent, have relied on it as the lens through which we view trends and developments in the EEOC’s litigation activity. (See, e.g., here, herehere, and here.)

Over the past few years, we have seen how the EEOC’s enforcement activity has progressed and taken shape under the influence of the SEP. From the beginning, it was clear that the EEOC was making the prosecution of systemic cases a key priority. We have watched as the EEOC has continued to expend considerable resources litigating high-level, pattern or practice, policy, and class cases. And we have seen that with that increased focus on systemic cases has come an increased focus on the procedural mechanisms that the EEOC relies on to prosecute those cases – and that employers use to defend against them. In our view, FY2015 was a watershed year for determining the future direction of EEOC systemic cases. The Supreme Court has decided some key procedural and substantive issues underpinning the EEOC’s strategic initiatives of the past few years. And the EEOC has weighed in with its own guidance and interpretations concerning its own powers and the scope of Title VII and other anti-discrimination statutes.

To be sure, those developments have answered many of the open questions of the past few years. But even as those questions were answered, more questions arose to take their place. Here are just a few:

  • On April 29, 2015, the Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in Mach Mining, LLC v. EEOC, in which it considered whether the EEOC gets to operate beyond judicial review during its pre-suit conciliation phase. (In a word: “No!”) But that has only opened the door to many new questions about how the lower federal courts will apply that decision to decide employers’ challenges to the EEOC’s conciliation process. FY2016 will be a defining year in that respect.
  • Similarly, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the EEOC’s pregnancy discrimination guidance in Young v. United Parcel Service, leaving employers to wonder how that guidance applies to their workplace and their employees.
  • The EEOC’s boundary-pushing theory of transgender discrimination – which we saw the first glimmers of at the very end of FY2014 – has become a full-blown trend. This rapidly solidifying theory of discrimination was aggressively pursued in FY2015, and we have every reason to expect that it will continue to develop in FY2016 and beyond.
  • The EEOC has repeatedly stated its intention to continue to litigate background check cases despite its initial string of embarrassing losses on this issue. FY2015 saw the EEOC gain ground in this area. Employers will need to wait to see whether those wins embolden the agency to pursue more of those types of cases in FY2016.
  • In a widely reported decision last year, the EEOC unsuccessfully tried to stop a company’s health and wellness plan in its tracks. That litigation position resulted in torrents of withering criticism from Congress and others. On April 16, 2015, the EEOC published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to clarify its position. But employers are still left scratching their heads because those proposed regulations appear to conflict with the implementing regulations of the Affordable Care Act.

Insight & Implications For Employers

The fact that we are asking these questions – and not others – is a direct result of how the EEOC has interpreted and pursued the enforcement objectives that it identified for itself in the 2012 Strategic Enforcement Plan. We have seen how the SEP has guided and shaped the EEOC’s enforcement initiatives, from an increased focus on systemic litigation, to the pursuit of boundary-pushing theories of discrimination. FY2016 is the last year covered by the 2012 SEP. Now that we are entering the final year, we are starting to see clearly how those enforcement priorities have materialized into actual litigation, and what they have meant in terms of the types of case that are filed and the industries affected. Those choices, in turn, have established new precedent, both in terms of the procedural aspects of EEOC-initiated litigation, and the substance, that will have a lasting effect for years to come.

This fiscal year has just ended. As we do every year, we will continue to analyze the data and filings from FY2015 to see what else we can learn about the EEOC’s priorities, and what employers should watch out for in FY2016 and beyond.