Seyfarth Synopsis: After a Fifth Circuit decision affirming a ruling by a U.S. District Court in Texas allowed the EEOC to seek compensatory and punitive damages in its high-profile Title VII pattern or practice race discrimination lawsuit against Bass Pro, a deadlocked Fifth Circuit denied Bass Pro’s petition for a rehearing en banc. The highly contentious dissenting opinion, which prompted a response from the panel in favor of denying the rehearing, is a must-read for employers regarding judicial views on the damages the EEOC can seek in Title VII pattern or practice of discrimination litigation.
One of the EEOC’s largest pending nationwide lawsuits, a Title VII pattern or practice race discrimination case concerning retailer Bass Pro’s hiring practices, has resurfaced in an appeal. In EEOC v. Bass Pro Outdoor World LLC, No. 15-20078, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 7628 (5th Cir. Apr. 28, 2017), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit was tasked with deciding whether to grant Bass Pro’s petition for a rehearing en banc after it previously affirmed a decision of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas allowing the EEOC to seek compensatory and punitive damages by bringing claims under § 706 and 707 of Title VII. Evident in a pair of pull-no-punches opinions, the Fifth Circuit panel of judges was deadlocked in a 7-7 split on whether to grant the rehearing, thus resulting in Bass Pro’s petition being denied.
As employers continue to challenge the EEOC’s willingness to stretch the bounds of pattern or practice Title VII litigation, the highly contentious dissenting opinion (“Dissent”), and equally provocative response from the panel in favor of denying the rehearing (“Panel”), are must-reads for employers.
As we have discussed in previous blog posts (here, here and here), the EEOC brought a lawsuit alleging discriminatory hiring practices in violation of Title VII on behalf of a group of individuals allegedly discriminated against on the basis of their gender or race, both as a representative action (under § 706) and based on a pattern or practice theory (under § 707). The Dissent noted that the 50,000 allegedly aggrieved individuals, Black and Hispanic applicants, was a number “asserted [by the EEOC] in shotgun fashion, with no development or refinement of who or where the individuals are.” Id. at *4. Further, the Dissent explained that “[t]he EEOC, after a three-year investigation, could identify zero discriminatees or even potential discriminatees. Upon being pressed by the [D]istrict [C]ourt, the EEOC identified about 100, and later, about 200, of the 50,000 mass.” Ultimately, the District Court allowed the EEOC to pursue pattern or practice claims on behalf of the 50,000 claimants under § 706, seeking individualized compensatory and punitive damages. On June 17, 2016, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision. Bass Pro thereafter filed an interlocutory appeal. Id. at *5.
The Fifth Circuit’s Decision
As a result of a 7-7 split between the circuit judges, the Fifth Circuit denied Bass Pro’s petition for a rehearing en banc. The Dissent initially summarized its argument by matter-of-factly noting “this ‘pattern or practice’ case cannot be brought under § 706 or § 707 as to provide individualized compensatory and punitive damages for a mass of 50,000 persons.” Id. at *6. In support of this assertion, the Dissent argued that the plain language and legislative history of the Title VII forbids § 706 “pattern or practice” suits, and the Panel’s contrary holding rendered § 707 of the Act a meaningless appendage to Title VII and hence superfluous. Second, the Dissent argued that allowing pattern or practice suits for individualized compensatory and punitive damages poses insurmountable manageability concerns, which the Supreme Court has addressed before and rejected such suits. Finally, the Dissent opined that allowing pattern or practice suits for individualized compensatory and punitive damages for the 50,000 allegedly aggrieved individuals necessarily ran afoul of the Seventh Amendment.
After the Dissent pointedly advocated this array of arguments, the Panel countered with a 16 page response, asserting that Bass Pro ignored “the independent role of the EEOC when it sues on behalf of the United States government . . . [and] asks us to hold as a matter of law that damages authorized by the 1991 amendments to the Civil Rights Act can only be recovered in individual suits.” Id. at *20-21. After clarifying the role of the EEOC in light of the 1991 amendments of the Civil Right Act of 1964, the Panel opined that, “Bass Pro’s argument rests upon a fundamental premise: that the EEOC’s enforcement authority and choice of remedies is tethered to the individuals for whose benefit it seeks relief. That premise is false.” Id. at *23. The Panel then argued that because the EEOC brought suit under both § 706 and 707, Bass Pro’s argument that the Commission was not entitled to punitive damages failed because it “would be truly perverse to withhold the remedy of punitive damages from the EEOC when it targets discrimination in its most virulent and damaging form: polices intentionally calculated to exclude protected minorities and perpetrated on a large scale.” Id. at *35.
Finally, the Panel addressed Bass Pro’s argument that even if Congress did grant the EEOC the authority to seek compensatory and punitive damages via the pattern-or-practice model, this grant of authority was unconstitutional. Noting that Bass Pro’s argument appeared to implicate due process concerns under the Seventh Amendment, the Panel held that Bass Pro’s reliance on Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011), was misplaced as that case involved Rule 23 class actions, which have “no force” in EEOC litigation. Id. at *36. After providing a hypothetical analysis as to how a jury may award various types of damages, the Panel concluded by finding Bass Pro’s manageability concerns to be unfounded, and its “claim that this suit cannot be tried is not a statement of fact but an advocate’s prayer. Seeking to limit its exposure to liability, Bass Pro asks us to shut down this lawsuit before it even gets off the ground.” Id. at *41-42.
Not to be outdone, the Dissent threw the final punch in a two paragraph dissent to the Panel’s response. In an effort to clarify the procedural uniqueness of the Panel’s response to the dissenting opinion, the Dissent noted “[l]est there be any mistake, the [P]anel’s ‘response’ must not be confused with a binding opinion on the denial of an en banc petition, because no authority authorizes any such opinion.” Id. at *42. As such, the Dissent concluded by instructing that in no way should the Panel’s response be treated as precedential.
Implications For Employers
The Fifth Circuit’s ruling is certainly unfavorable for employers, as this gives the EEOC ammunition to seek a broad range of damages under § 706 and 707, and essentially pick and choose which section’s procedures it wants to follow at various stages of the litigation. But when reading the tea leaves within the tenaciously written opinions by the divided panel, employers can find encouragement in that many judges – both in the Fifth Circuit and throughout the country – support the Dissent’s belief that the EEOC conflated its rights under § 706 and 707. As such, employers should continue to follow this case and similar large-scale EEOC pattern or practice cases, which will likely continue to percolate following this government-friendly ruling.