The EEOC’s reach once again exceeded its grasp in its failed lawsuit against growers in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington. In EEOC v. Global Horizons, Inc.11-CV- 3045, 2014 WL 2207866 (E.D. Wash. May 28, 2014), the Court tossed out the EEOC’s discrimination claims of two of the three defendants in a human-trafficking case over the treatment of Thai workers that has spanned years and was the subject of considerable media attention when it was first filed. Our prior posts on the case are herehere and here. A look at the anatomy and disposition of the case is useful for all employers facing EEOC systemic litigation.

Background

The case began in 2011 when the EEOC sued two growers, Green Acre Farms and Valley Fruit Orchards, and their labor contractor, Global Horizons, on behalf of hundreds of alleged trafficking victims. Our readers have been tracking the case since it first grew roots, and the latest development is a classic example of the EEOC’s sue first, aim later philosophy.

In ruling on the growers’ motions for summary judgment, the Court examined the hostile work environment, constructive discharge, and retaliation claims against the growers. Specifically, the Court reviewed whether a worker was subjected to unwelcome conduct based on race or national origin that was sufficiently severe and pervasive to alter employment conditions and create an abusive working environment. The Court also reviewed the work environment provided by the growers and claims of retaliation against employees who complained about working conditions.

Judge Edward F. Shea granted the growers’ summary judgment on all of the EEOC’s Title VII liability claims against them. In doing so, the Court found that the work environment provided by the farms was not so “intolerable” that a reasonable person would have felt compelled to just walk away from the job, and that the EEOC failed to show there was a single worker who could sustain a timely retaliation claim. The Court’s decision is a clear showing that when the EEOC makes assertions of systemic discrimination, it cannot reach so far without first planting the necessary evidence to grow the assertions. The Court’s decision now leaves farm labor contractor Global Horizons, Inc. as the sole defendant in the case.

Sour Grapes

One other issue was front and center in the summary judgment briefing – whether the EEOC had attempted to resolve the case in good faith before resorting to litigation in the courthouse. The growers said the answer to this question was a resounding no.  The Court, however, looked to the Seventh Circuit’s recent EEOC v. Mach Mining, LLC decision, deciding it was not the Court’s place to review those conciliation efforts, even though other federal courts had done so in the past.  Circuit splits like this make it difficult to assess the strength and merit of lawsuits. As we previously blogged, because of the importance of this issue, both the EEOC and employers are requesting that the Supreme Court resolve what is now an even greater disagreement among the courts of appeals regarding the EEOC’s conciliation obligations.

Implications For Employers

EEOC v. Global Horizons stands as a reminder to employers that the fact that the EEOC alleges systemic allegations does not make it so. The unfortunate consequence to those who find themselves in the EEOC cross-hairs is that they may need to endure years of costly litigation and media scrutiny to vindicate their cause. Fighting the good fight can pay off, as it did here.

As for the EEOC’s obligation to fulfill its mandate to informally attempt to resolve these expensive cases before they are filed, the jury remains out.  The EEOC insists that federal courts should simply take the government’s word for it when it says it has negotiated in good faith – a position many employers know first-hand is problematic.

Check back soon to see how Global Horizons, Inc. fairs in the next round, and whether the Supreme Court elects to finally take a bite at the Mach Mining apple.

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.