Jenner & Block won a closely watched Title VII employment discrimination case on behalf of client CRST Van Expedited, Inc. On May 19, 2016, the US Supreme Court vacated an Eighth Circuit ruling that overturned an award of fees to CRST with respect to 67 individual sexual harassment claims that were dismissed because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had litigated the claims without first investigating and conciliating them as the statute requires.
The Eighth Circuit had vacated a $4.7 million award of attorneys’ fees and costs to CRST even though all but one of the 270 individual sex discrimination claims brought by the EEOC against the trucking firm were dismissed. In doing so, the Eighth Circuit held that no attorneys’ fees could be assessed against the EEOC under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for claims that were not dismissed on the merits.
In December, the Court granted CRST’s petition for review. In March, in his 18th oral argument before the Court, Partner Paul M. Smith argued that the EEOC can be liable for a prevailing defendant’s legal fees where the federalagency had litigated the case without first satisfying Title VII’s mandatory presuit requirements of investigating the claims, finding reasonable cause for them, and attempting to conciliate them.
In its unanimous opinion in CRST Vans Expedited v. EEOC, the Court, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, held that a defendant “does not need to obtain a favorable judgment on the merits of a Title VII claim to be a ‘prevailing party.’” Justice Kennedy explained that the defendant has “fulfilled its primary objective whenever the plaintiff’s challenge is rebuffed, irrespective of the precise reason for the court’s decision. The defendant may prevail even if the court’s final judgment rejects the plaintiff’s claim for a nonmerits reason.”
However, the Court sent the case back to the Eighth Circuit to address additional issues not previously decided by that court: “The Court declines to decide the argument, raised by the Commission for the first time during the merits stage of this case, whether a defendant must obtain a preclusive judgment in order to prevail. The Commission’s failure to articulate its preclusion theory earlier has resulted in inadequate briefing on the issue, and the parties dispute whether the district court’s judgment was in fact preclusive. The Commission also submits that the Court should affirm on the alternative ground that, even if CRST is a prevailing party, the Commission’s position that it had satisfied its presuit obligations was not frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless. These matters are left for the Eighth Circuit to consider in the first instance.”