The U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada recently issued an opinion in EEOC v. Prospect Airport Services, Inc., U.S. Dist. LEXIS 103256 (D. Nev. July 25, 2012), which granted the EEOC sweeping injunctive relief and ordered the Defendant to implement steps to deter future violations of sexual harassment. The EEOC immediately trumpeted the ruling with a press release. The ruling provides some important guidance on the extent to which the EEOC can secure injunctive relief, and the threat employers face for such claims in EEOC-initiated litigation.
The Commission brought suit against Prospect Airport Services, a provider of wheelchair assistance services to airline passengers, on behalf of its employee, Rudolpho Lamas, who worked for the Defendant at a Las Vegas airport. The EEOC alleged that a female co-worker sexually harassed Lamas for over a year, and that the Defendant’s general manager failed to respond to Lamas’ complaints. In 2007, the Court dismissed the case on summary judgment. Subsequently, the Ninth Circuit reversed the dismissal and remanded the case for trial. Three days before trial, the parties entered a $75,000 settlement agreement. The Defendant’s payment, however, did not completely dispose of the case. Prospect refused to agree to any prospective relief to prevent future harassment, which forced the EEOC to petition for an injunction. The Court relied on the language of the settlement agreement and the seven year case history in issuing a lengthy order of injunctive relief against the Defendant.
Background Of The Case
After receiving sexually suggestive notes from a female co-worker, Lamas, a male employee, brought the notes to a general manager working for the Defendant. The general manger allegedly did nothing. The harassment intensified and the co-worker made verbal advances and gave Lamas a semi-nude photo of herself. Lamas rebuffed his co-worker’s continual harassment. Lamas also claimed that other employees made remarks about his sexuality. In 2003, after Lamas was allegedly harassed for over a year, he finally resigned.
Two years later, the EEOC filed suit against the Defendant for subjecting Lamas to a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. Almost immediately, the Defendant took remedial actions to prevent further unlawful conduct at its company. Id. at *7. Years of dispositive motions, appeals, and even trial preparation ensued. Days before trial, the parties reached a $75,000 settlement agreement, leaving only the question of non-monetary sanctions. Id. at *2. The Defendants refused to include any mention of prospective relief to prevent future harassment in its settlement agreement. Subsequently, the EEOC petitioned the Court for an injunction.
The Court’s Ruling
The Court noted two key points. First, Defendant had “taken substantial efforts [during the time since the lawsuit was filed] to ensure compliance with the sexual harassment provisions of Title VII.” Id. at *2. Second, all of the individuals involved with the harassment of Lamas had left Prospect by mid-2006. Id. at *3. However, in the Court’s analysis, these factors did not counsel against the EEOC’s motion.
In passing on the EEOC’s motion, Judge Kent J. Dawson determined that he was “convinced that injunctive relief is necessary in this case.” Id. at *8. Explaining that he could not issue injunctive relief “unless there is a cognizable risk of recurrent violations[.]” Judge Dawson reasoned that the “Defendant’s failure to responsively investigate and remedy the sexual harassment was not accidental.” Id. at *5, *8. Further, the Court determined that these actions were “insufficient assurances that Defendant will not repeat the violation.” Id. at *7. In efforts to deter sexual harassment violations at the Defendant’s company, the Court enjoined prospective Title VII violations relating to sexual harassment for five years. The Court also ordered the Defendant to develop and implement an anti-harassment policy regarding sexual harassment at all of its facilities; an impartial investigation process of complaints of sexual harassment; disciplinary measures for employees that fail to comply with the investigation process; and mandatory annual training for all supervisors. Id. at *8-10.
Implications For Employers
The Defendant in EEOC v. Prospect Airport Services, Inc. must abide by the Court’s injunction for five years. That is a long lesson to learn. The ruling is a reminder to employers that monetary settlements do not always dispose of a case, especially litigation with the EEOC.