In the world of EEOC systemic enforcement, court-imposed injunctive relief accompanies nearly every settlement of Title VII claims. The parties memorialize this relief in the form of a consent decree to be approved by the Court and entered as an enforceable order. Though the parties and the public tend to focus primarily on the dollar value of systemic action settlements, employers bound by consent decrees must remember that failure to comply with agreed-upon injunctive mandates could result in significant exposure for the company.

In EEOC v. Supervalu, Inc. and Jewel-Osco, Case No. 1:09-CV-05637 (N.D. Ill. July 15, 2014), the EEOC tried to send this very message to employers.

Background

On September 11, 2009, the EEOC sued Supervalu, Inc. and Jewel-Osco (collectively “Jewel”) in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, alleging Jewel engaged in a pattern or practice of violating Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Specifically the EEOC alleged Jewel prohibited disabled employees from returning to work after disability leaves unless they could return without accommodation, and that Jewel terminated such employees at the end of their one-year leave period.

On January 14, 2011, the EEOC and Jewel entered into a three-year Consent Decree to resolve the case. Among other provisions, the Consent Decree required Jewel to make monetary payments to eligible claimants, provide training to certain employees who administer disability leaves, and engage a “job description consultant” and “accommodations consultant” to improve job descriptions and assist in identifying possible accommodations for disabled employees.

The case was over. But was it?

The next year, on March 26, 2012, the EEOC filed a motion seeking civil contempt sanctions against Jewel for failing to follow the requirements of the Consent Decree as to three former employees. The EEOC also sought limited discovery on the issue, which the Court initially denied, but thereafter granted following written objections by the parties. After the parties engaged in limited discovery, the Court conducted evidentiary hearings on March 17 and 18 and April 7, 2014, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael T. Mason.

The Magistrate Judge’s Recommendation

Judge Mason filed his Report and Recommendation on July 15, 2014, determining that Jewel violated the terms of the Consent Decree by failing to accommodate and ultimately terminating three disabled employees.  According to the Court, Jewel failed to follow its own interactive process guidelines and declined to consider a list of possible accommodations generated by the accommodations consultant the company itself had appointed per the Consent Decree.  According to Magistrate Judge Mason, “[q]uite simply, the evidence [was] overwhelming that the company did not do what it was supposed to do under the Decree.” Id. at 46.

After determining clear and convincing evidence showed Jewel violated the Consent Decree, the Court recommended: (i) a finding of contempt on the part of Jewel; (ii) compensatory sanctions of over $82,000 in back pay for the three aggrieved individuals; (iii) a one year extension of the term of the Consent Decree; (iv) retention of a company-paid “special master” to review prospective accommodation decisions made by Jewel in the future; and (v) company payment of reasonable fees and costs incurred by the EEOC in pursuing its contempt motion.

But the saga continues.  Jewel has until July 29, 2014 to file objections to Judge Mason’s Report and Recommendations.  So blog readers, please stay tuned.

Implications For Employers

Regardless of the outcome of the ongoing briefing, this action brought by the EEOC serves as a cautionary tale for any employer living under the terms of an EEOC consent decree. Companies bound by consent decrees must remain vigilant, as the EEOC frequently looks for opportunities to retake the spotlight by making allegations about supposed compliance issues. As EEOC Chicago Regional Attorney John Hendrickson has warned, “Consent decrees have teeth.” The attraction of these compliance actions for the EEOC is clear:  tag-along actions like those discussed here have all of the publicity elements of an actual lawsuit, while expending minimal governmental resources. Because consent decrees often contain exhaustive injunctive mandates, robust documentation of those efforts can be a critical safeguard against aggressive EEOC allegations of non-compliance.

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