In yet another case regarding discovery of social media content, Magistrate Judge Michael E. Hegarty of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado recently sanctioned the EEOC for its efforts to evade discovery of social media content in EEOC v. The Original Honeybaked Ham, No 11-CV-2560 (D. Colo. Feb. 27, 2013), a systemic sexual harassment and retaliation case. The Defendant argued that many of its employees utilized social media to communicate and therefore claimed that the employees’ online statements were discoverable. On several occasions, the EEOC made the Defendant’s discovery efforts “more time consuming, laborious, and adversarial than it should have been.” Id. at 2. Thus, the Defendant filed a motion for sanctions in a last-ditch effort to compel the EEOC to comply with its discovery requests. Siding with the Defendant, Magistrate Judge Hegarty granted in part and denied in part the Defendant’s request for sanctions.

Background Of The Case

In 2010, the EEOC investigated allegations that the Defendant’s regional manager subjected Wendy Cabrera, and other female employees to repeated and offensive sexual comments and physical touching. One year later, the EEOC initiated claims of sexual harassment, hostile environment, and retaliation, alleging that the Defendant subjected approximately 20 women employees to sexual harassment. Id. at 1. One of the charging parties, Cabrera, claimed that her supervisor solicited sex from her and other women employees. Cabrera also claimed that after she reported the harassment, the Defendant terminated in her in retaliation. The EEOC demanded the Defendant provide back pay and compensatory and punitive damages to the allegedly aggrieved individuals. The EEOC also requested that the Court require the Defendant to initiate anti-discrimination training for its managers and human resource personnel.

In efforts to build its defense, the Defendant requested discovery of the employees’ social media accounts, text messages, and emails. The Defendant argued that such information was relevant to the lawsuit because, for example, Cabrera posted on her Facebook page her hopes to recover $400,000 from the lawsuit; statements about several personal matters; “musings about her emotional state in having lost a beloved pet as well as having suffered a broken relationship; other writings addressing her positive outlook on how her life was post-termination; her self-described sexual aggressiveness; statements about actions she engaged in as a supervisor with Defendant; sexually amorous communications with other class members; [and,] her post-termination employment and income opportunities and financial condition[.]” EEOC v. The Original Honeybaked Ham, No 11-CV-02560, at 304 (D. Colo. Nov. 7, 2012).  In objecting to the Defendant’s discovery request, the EEOC asserted that the Defendant’s request was overly broad and intruded on the employees’ privacy.

In November 2012, the Court ruled on the parties’ discovery dispute and held that the information the employees posted on their Facebook profiles is relevant to the lawsuit and therefore discoverable. Noting that social media presents “thorny and novel issues,” the Court reasoned that the employees’ Facebook postings are discoverable because they may contain information that could lead to discovery of admissible evidence relating to the lawsuit. Id. at 2. The Court rejected the EEOC’s privacy objections and noted that the employees shared information in a public forum, knowing that it was accessible by other people. Nevertheless, the Court did not disregard the EEOC’s privacy concerns. Instead, the Court selected a forensic expert as a special master to review the requested documents – a process it defined as necessary to “gather only discoverable information.” Id. at 4-5.

Despite the Court’s order, the EEOC continued to refuse to provide requested discovery and failed to engage in its mandatory pre-suit conciliation efforts. Thus, in January 2013, HBH filed a motion to dismiss the EEOC’s claims for failure to satisfy its pre-suit requirements under Title VII.  On January 15, 2013, the Court joined with a litany of recent rulings (discussed here, here, and here) and held that the EEOC’s pre-litigation efforts were unacceptable under Title VII’s framework.  Thus, the Court barred the EEOC from asserting claims not specifically identified during pre-suit litigation and prohibited the EEOC from seeking relief on behalf of individuals who HBH could not reasonably identify from the information provided by the EEOC. 

Then, most recently, the Defendant filed a motion for sanctions against the EEOC for its continued endeavors to thwart the discovery of social media evidence. Magistrate Judge Hegarty’s recent ruling serves as warning to the EEOC that preventing discovery of relevant social media content may result in sanctions.

The Court’s Ruling

The Court found that the EEOC prolonged the discovery process and caused unnecessary expense and delay on several occasions. The Court found that “in certain respects, the EEOC has been negligent in its discovery obligations, dilatory in cooperating with defense counsel, and somewhat cavalier in its responsibility to the United States District Court. EEOC counsel has prematurely made promises about agreed-upon discovery methodology and procedure when they apparently had no authority to do so . . . .” Id. at 2. 

Despite the EEOC’s clear foul play, the Court noted that it faced a hurdle in granting the Defendant’s motion for sanctions because although the EEOC’s conduct was “inappropriate and obstreperous,” it did not rise to a level that is sanctionable under most rules governing the litigation process. Id. at 3. However, the Court found a remedy vis-à-vis Fed. R. Civ. P. 16(f)(1). The Court explained that Rule 16(f)(1) grants courts the inherent power to sanction parties for unnecessary burdens. Thus, the under Rule 16(f)(1), the Court held that it could sanction the EEOC for its actions that negatively affected the Court’s management of its docket and caused unnecessary burdens on the Defendant and delays in the Court’s efforts to proceed with the case. Id. at 6.

Implications For Employers

The EEOC’s tactics in EEOC v. The Original Honeybaked Ham ultimately resulted in a sanction fee against the Commission. The Court’s ruling warns the EEOC that using discovery as a tool to create ongoing and unnecessary burdens is unacceptable.