How Many Decades of Litigation is Enough?

On retreating from Russia after the disastrous 1812 invasion, Napoleon famously commented, “It is but a step from the sublime to the ridiculous.” That adage applies equally well to the latest opinion in the now 14-year old dispute between the EEOC and trucking company CRST.

We’ve blogged various chapters of this saga in the past (3/21/2012, 4/20/2011, 10/7/2013 and 5/19/2016). In a nutshell, based on a charge filed in 2005, the EEOC brought a lawsuit in 2007 against the employer, purportedly on behalf of approximately 270 individuals, contending sex discrimination in its training program. Rather than build a case based on evidence, the Commission refused to honor its statutory mandate to attempt informal resolution of the claims, and, as the district court found, hadn’t even investigated most of them. Once litigation commenced, the Commission insisted on the production of thousands of documents, but simultaneously evaded efforts to ferret out who the class members might be. Even when class members were identified, 120 of them refused to appear for deposition, and the remainder were dismissed on summary judgment for either substantive or procedural defects (including the EEOC’s own failures) in their claims.

Back in 2011, the district court ordered the EEOC to pay $4.5 million in fees based on its frivolous conduct in bringing and maintaining litigation. That ruling itself made its way to the Supreme Court, a decision we blogged on May 19, 2016. The Supreme Court affirmed that sanctions could be awarded under the circumstances, but the case was remanded once again to determine the amount.

On remand, the district court again awarded roughly the same amount it had seven years before. In a detailed 82-page order, it concluded again that the EEOC had pursued “frivolous, unreasonable, and/or groundless” claims. The EEOC, once again, appealed.

On Dec. 10, 2019, the Eighth Circuit affirmed this most recent district court order, rejecting arguments by the Commission that its conduct could be excused based on alternate case theories it had never pleaded in the first place. EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc., Case No. 18-1446 (8th Cir. 2019).

Will this be the end? Probably not. We can likely expect yet another cert. petition, which itself might be characterized as frivolous given the many adverse findings against the EEOC along the way.

The CRST litigation highlights the problems of aggressive EEOC tactics. At base, there wasn’t any class-wide claim, and the EEOC had many opportunities to retrench and simply pursue what the evidence might support. Instead, the Commission has dragged a defendant now proven not to have engaged in anything like the class allegations it made through 14 years of proceedings.

The bottom line: Frivolous class claims can lead to sanctions, but be prepared for a long fight.