A slap in the face, maybe, after 11 years
Back in 2005, a prospective driver for a trucking company filed a charge with the EEOC contending that two trainers sexually harassed her during an over-the-road trip. That charge triggered a lawsuit in which the EEOC went on to claim that over 250 other women had been harassed, and that the company had a “pattern and practice” of such harassment. Serious allegations but, it turns out, ones that for the most part lacked evidence. Further much of the case was dismissed either because of the Commission’s own conduct in discharging its obligation to conciliate or occurrences such as the refusal of at least 100 of the alleged victims to appear for depositions. These matters resulted in the dismissal of virtually all of the claims and sanctions against the Commission of over $4 million. We’ve blogged aspects of this case at least three times (3/21/2012, 4/20/2011, and 10/7/2013). The Eighth Circuit ultimately reversed those sanctions because many of the claims were dismissed on procedural grounds rather than specifically on the merits. This created a conflict among the circuits and the Supreme Court accepted certiorari last year.
On May 19, 2016, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed. CRST Van Expedited, Inc. v. EEOC, Case No. 14-1375 (May 19, 2016). It found, in essence, that a win is a win. It concluded that an employer might prevail on any number of grounds other than merits that would render the Commission’s conduct frivolous or unreasonable, and that the dismissal of much of the EEOC’s case on procedural grounds was not a bar to the imposition of sanctions. Unfortunately for the parties, however, the Court, despite professing the need to bring the litigation to an end, remanded the case for yet further proceedings to consider whether the Commission, in fact, had acted in a frivolous, unreasonable or groundless manner.
The issue in CRST is one far bigger than this single case. An employer was and continues to be forced to proceed in multimillion-dollar litigation when there was nothing to support anything beyond the situation of a single employee. The Court itself, despite identifying the issue of the case’s convoluted and extended history, found itself powerless to stop it. Both the inability of the courts to handle even such a weak case with anything approaching efficiency and the conduct of an agency pursuing such claims without basis are sober reminders of the dangers of even baseless class litigation itself against employers.
The bottom line: The Supreme Court has found that a plaintiff, even the EEOC, can be liable for sanctions when the employer prevails for reasons on the merits or otherwise, but that won’t stop litigation over those sanctions continuing on for many years.