Workplace Class Action Blog

EEOC Loses Landmark Transgender Discrimination Case

Posted in EEOC Litigation

United_States_District_Court_for_the_Eastern_District_of_Michigan_sealBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: In one of the first two ever transgender discrimination cases brought by the EEOC, a federal court in Michigan granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, finding the employer met its burden in demonstrating that it is exempt under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, while the EEOC failed to suggest a less restrictive alternative in its challenge of the employer’s gender-specific dress code policy.

In one of the first two ever transgender discrimination cases brought by the EEOC, the government alleged that a funeral home wrongfully terminated its former funeral director for being transgender, for transitioning from male to female, and/or for not conforming to the employer’s gender-based preferences regarding its dress code.  The funeral home argued it was exempt under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”).  In EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., No. 14-13710 (E.D. Mich. Aug. 18, 2016), after the EEOC and employer R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. (“the Funeral Home”) both moved for summary judgment, Judge Cox of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted the Funeral Home’s motion and denied the EEOC’s motion.  The court also dismissed the EEOC’s claim that the Funeral Home engaged in an unlawful employment practice by providing work clothes only to males, noting that the EEOC had not done a full investigation of this claim that it uncovered during its wrongful termination investigation.

Although transgender discrimination litigation is not yet explicitly covered under Title VII, this ruling is monumental in terms of shaping the landscape for an evolving area of law that will profoundly impact employers in years to come.

Case Background

The Funeral Home is a closely-held, for-profit corporation operating three funeral homes in Michigan.  Id. at 7.  Owner and operator Thomas Rost has been a Christian for over sixty-five years.  Id. at 15.  While the Funeral Home does not officially affiliate with a religion, its website contains scripture and various bible verses are dispersed at its locations.  Id.  The Funeral Home has a strict employee dress code policy with several requirements, including that men must wear suits and women must wear jackets and skirts/dresses.  Id. at 8-9.

The claimant was hired in 2007.  Id. at 9.  In 2013, the claimant provided the Funeral Home with a letter stating he intended to begin transitioning his gender to female following return from a vacation.  Id. at 10.  Although the claimant intended to abide by the gender-specific dress code by wearing a skirt during the transition, Rost fired the claimant, stating “this is not going to work out.”  Id. at 11.

The claimant filed a charge of sex discrimination with the EEOC.  During its investigation, the EEOC discovered that male employees at the Funeral Home were provided with work clothing and that female employees were not.  The EEOC filed suit against the Funeral Home on September 25, 2014, asserting two claims.  Id. at 12.  First, it asserted a wrongful termination claim, alleging the claimant was fired because the claimant is transgender, because of the claimant’s transition from male to female, and/or because the claimant did not conform to the Funeral Home’s sex or gender-based preferences, expectations, or stereotypes.  Second, the EEOC alleged that the Funeral Home engaged in an unlawful employment practice by providing work clothes to male but not female employees.  The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

The Decision

The court granted summary judgment in favor of the Funeral Home as to the wrongful termination claim, and dismissed the EEOC’s claim regarding the work clothes being provided only to males.  Id. at 55-56.  First, the Funeral Home asserted that its enforcement of its sex-specific dress code cannot constitute impermissible sex stereotyping under Title VII.  The court rejected this argument, opining that “[t]his evolving area of the law – how to reconcile this previous line of authority regarding sex-specific dress/grooming codes with the more recent sex/gender-stereotyping theory of sex discrimination under Title VII – has not been addressed by the Sixth Circuit.”  Id. at 25-26.

On the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2751 (2014), the Funeral Home also argued that the RFRA prohibited the EEOC from applying Title VII to force the Funeral Home to violate its sincerely held religious beliefs.  Id. at 26.  The RFRA prohibits the “‘Government [from] substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability’ unless the Government ‘demonstrates that application of the burden to the person—(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.’”  Id. at 27 (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb–1(a), (b)).  The EEOC conceded that the Funeral Home’s religious beliefs were sincerely held.  Id.  Accordingly, citing Rost’s testimony that permitting employees to dress inconsistent with their biological sex would violate his religion and pressure him to relinquish his business, the court found that “the Funeral Home met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on the ability of the Funeral Home to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs.”  Id. at 32.

After finding that the Funeral Home demonstrated that enforcement of Title VII would be a substantial burden to its religious exercise, the EEOC then needed to meet its two-part test: (1) application of the burden is in furtherance of a compelling government interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest.  The court assumed without deciding that the EEOC met its first burden, therefore proceeded to analyze the least restrictive means burden.  Id. at 36.  Quoting Hobby Lobby, the court noted that the “least-restrictive means standard is exceptionally demanding.”  134 S. Ct. at 2780.

Rejecting the EEOC’s conclusory argument that Title VII is narrowly tailored, the court noted that the EEOC did not provide “a focused ‘to the person’ analysis of how the burden on the Funeral Home’s religious exercise is the least restrictive means of clothing gender stereotypes at the Funeral Home under the facts and circumstances presented here.”  Id. at 38.  Further, noting the EEOC had been proceeding as if gender identity or transgender status was protected under Title VII, the court opined that the EEOC appeared to have taken the position that the only acceptable solution would be for the Funeral Home to allow the claimant to wear a skirt while working as a funeral director.  Id. at 39.

Finding that the EEOC failed to offer or even explore any solutions that could have worked under the facts of this case, the court rejected the EEOC’s approach and questioned “[i]f the EEOC truly has a compelling governmental interest in ensuring that [the claimant] is not subject to gender stereotypes in the workplace in terms of required clothing at the Funeral Home, couldn’t the EEOC propose a gender-neutral dress code (dark-colored suit, consisting of a matching business jacket and pants, but without a neck tie) as a reasonable accommodation that would be a less restrictive means of furthering that goal under the facts presented here?”  Id. at 38-41.  Accordingly, the court held that the EEOC did not meet its demanding burden, thus entitling the Funeral Home to RFRA exemption from Title VII.

As to the second claim, the EEOC alleged that the Funeral Home violated Title VII by providing a clothing allowance and/or work clothes to male employees but failing to provide such assistance to female employees.  Id. at 45.  Relying on EEOC v. Bailey, 563 F.2d 439 (6th Cir. 1977), the Funeral Home argued that the EEOC may include in a Title VII suit only claims that fall within an “investigation reasonably expected to grow out of the charge of discrimination.”  Id. at 45-46.  Applying Bailey, the court concluded that the EEOC investigation here uncovered possible unlawful discrimination (1) of a kind not raised by the claimant; and (2) not affecting the claimant.  Id. at 54-55.  Thus, the court instructed that the proper procedure would be the filing of a charge by a member of the EEOC and for a full EEOC investigation of that new claim of discrimination.  Accordingly, the court dismissed the EEOC’s clothing allowance claim without prejudice.  Id. at 56.

Implications For Employers

With an increasingly diverse workforce employing more transgender employees, employers would be wise to adopt an inclusive mentality in order allow their business to nurture a broader range of perspectives while also protecting against potential discrimination liability.  As this was a favorable ruling for the employer, businesses with sincerely held religious beliefs can use this as a template to seek protection under RFRA exemptions when defending against various discrimination claims, including those brought on behalf of transgender employees.  Until Title VII eventually incorporates transgender discrimination, the EEOC will continue to bring sex discrimination claims on behalf of transgender employees, but will use this opinion to remedy flaws in their strategy, for instance, in their approach to the least restrictive means test for gender-based dress code policies.

Instead of taking a reactionary approach and waiting for Title VII to evolve or for the EEOC to remedy their case theories, employers should be proactive in revising their policies to be gender-neutral when possible and contemplative of any employment requirement that might affect transgender employees.  As both employees and laws change, employers should follow suit now before having to pay to defend one later.

Our loyal blog readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown Blog here.

Bankrolling Class Actions: Court Rules That Plaintiff Must Identify Third-Party Funder Of Class Action Lawsuit

Posted in Class Action Litigation

moneystacksBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: The increasingly common practice of third-party funding of class actions, which provides tax incentives to plaintiffs’ attorneys and third-party funders alike, may no longer be protected under confidentiality agreements.  Finding a class action funding agreement to be relevant in determining the adequacy of class counsel, a court in California granted a defendant’s motion to compel the plaintiff to produce the litigation funding agreement and reveal the identity of the third-party funder. This ruling is key for all employers facing class action litigation.

A recent trend has emerged in the class action landscape whereby a third-party funder pays the owner of a civil claim an up-front monetary payment in return for the claim owner’s promise to convey a portion of the potential recovery.  Class action plaintiffs’ attorneys and third-party funders are incentivized under this approach through tax advantages, whereby the attorneys can defer tax liability on the monetary advancement until the claim pays off while the funders can deduct their expenses and pay tax on any profit at the lower capital-gains rate.  Predictably, many of the third-party funders enter into such agreements with plaintiffs’ attorneys confidentially for varying business or personal reasons.

In a novel decision that will profoundly impact the practice of third-party funding of class actions, Judge Illston of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California recently granted defendant’s (“Chevron”) motion to compel plaintiff to reveal the identity of who was funding its proposed class action regarding a gas explosion off the coast of Nigeria in Gbarabe v. Chevron Corp., No. 14-CV-173 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 5, 2016).  This ruling provides businesses facing class actions, including employers facing workplace class actions, a blueprint as to how to compel plaintiffs to identify stakeholders in class action lawsuits against their companies.

Case Background

Plaintiff, a Nigerian fisherman near the coastal waters of Bayelsa, Nigeria, brought a class action suit on January 13, 2014 for alleged losses to the classes’ livelihood and health problems.  Id. at 2.  After several rounds of motion practice and extensions, plaintiff moved for class certification on April 8, 2016.

To determine whether plaintiff’s counsel could adequately represent the proposed class of Nigerian fisherman and residents, Chevron requested that plaintiff be ordered to produce “documents reflecting or relating to the actual or potential financing or funding of the prosecution of this litigation” and to comply with Civil Local Rule 3-15.  Id.  Chevron argued that when the Court ruled on the upcoming class certification motion, it must examine the resources that plaintiff’s counsel will commit to representing the class, which was especially important in a case like this involving claims that are likely to be expensive to investigate, prepare for trial, and prosecute to verdict.  Further, Chevron noted that plaintiff did not dispute that his counsel, a group of solo practitioners, were dependent on outside funding to prosecute the case.

After initially refusing to produce the requested documents, plaintiff produced a heavily redacted copy of a litigation funding agreement.  Id. at 3.  Chevron argued the redactions made it impossible for it to assess whether counsel could commit adequate resources to the class.  While plaintiff conceded the relevance of the funding agreement to the class certification adequacy determination, and further did not assert that the agreement was privileged, plaintiff argued that he and “his counsel are under a contractual obligation to preserve the confidentiality of the funder’s identity, as well as the terms of the agreement, absent a Court order or a determination that it would be prudent to do so.”  Id.  Plaintiff thereafter proposed submitting an unredacted copy of the litigation funding agreement to the Court for in camera review, along with an executed declaration by the funder’s Chief Investment Officer which addresses each item identified by defendant in their motion.  Id.

The Court’s Decision

The Court rejected plaintiff’s proposed approach and granted Chevron’s motion to compel production of the litigation funding agreement.

The Court noted that under the circumstances of the case, the litigation funding agreement was relevant to the adequacy determination and thus should be produced to defendant.  Further, the Court noted that the confidentiality provision of the funding agreement did not prohibit plaintiff from producing the agreement.  Id.  Plaintiff’s proposal for in camera review of the agreement by the Court was found to be inadequate because it would deprive Chevron of the ability to make its own assessment and arguments regarding the funding agreement and its impact, if any, on plaintiff’s ability to adequately represent the class.  Accordingly, the Court ordered plaintiff to produce the litigation funding agreement to Chevron along with any other documents that were responsive to Chevron’s document request.  Id. at 4.

Implications For Employers

A business confronted with class action litigation absolutely would want to know if someone other than the plaintiffs themselves have a financial interest in a “bet-the-company” case.  The ruling in Gbarabe arms employers with a potential strategy to unmask third-party funders that may have an interest in seeing their financial demise as a class action defendant.  Given that this ruling stemmed from internationally-based class action litigation involving solo practitioners, businesses should be cautioned that courts may not always find litigation funding agreements to be relevant in determining the adequacy of plaintiffs’ counsel.  Nonetheless, the arguments presented by Chevron are instructive in showing class action defendants how they can attempt to figure out who is bankrolling litigation battles against them.  Finally, this ruling should serve as a cautionary tale to those third-party funders who desire anonymity, and ideally result in a chilling effect of this practice that amounts to tax-incentivized gambling on class action litigation.  Workplace class actions can expect to see similar challenges to the adequacy of class counsel with motions to compel the production of litigation funding agreements in the very near future.

Calling All Readers! The Workplace Class Action Blog Is In The Running For The ABA Journal Blawg 100 Award!

Posted in Class Action Litigation

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Seyfarth Synopsis: Vote today for Seyfarth’s Workplace Class Action blog for the ABA Journal Blawg 100 Award

As many of you may know, our blog is a one-of-a-kind reference site and thought leadership forum that analyzes the latest trends in complex employment litigation. The Workplace Class Action Blog is also one of the primary vehicles for disseminating Seyfarth’s Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report. We were again honored this year with a review of our Report by Employment Practices Liability Consultant Magazine (“EPLiC”).

Here is what EPLiC said: “The Report is a ‘must-have’ for legal research and in-depth analysis of employment-related class action litigation.  Anyone who practices in this area, whether as an attorney, risk manager, underwriter, or broker cannot afford to be without it. Importantly, the Report is the only publication of its kind in the United States.”  You can read more about the review here.  Furthermore, EPLiC recognized our Report as the “state-of-the-art word” on workplace class action litigation.

Please help us gain some extra recognition by nominating us for the ABA’s annual 100 best legal blogs competition today!

Here are some additional information you should know about the nomination.

When: Nominations are open now till August 7, 2016.

Where: Click the link here to nominate. Simply provide a short explanation of why you like this blog.

Why: Check out some of the competition criteria:

The author is recognizable as someone working in a legal field or studying law in the vast majority of the posts. √

The majority of the blog is written with an audience of legal professionals or law students — rather than potential clients or potential law students — in mind. √

The majority of the blog’s content is unique to the blog and not cross-posted or cut and pasted from other publications. √

Hurry over to the site and nominate!  Thank you for your consideration and support!

 

Acclaim For The 2016 Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report

Posted in Class Action Litigation

untitledBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: EPLiC delivers acclaim for Seyfarth’s 2016 Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report, called it the “must have” resource that corporate counsel “cannot afford to be without it…”

We are humbled and honored by the recent review of our 2016 Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report by Employment Practices Liability Consultant Magazine (“EPLiC”) – the review is here. Here is what EPLiC said:

“The Report is a ‘must-have’ for legal research and in-depth analysis of employment-related class action litigation.  Anyone who practices in this area, whether as an attorney, risk manager, underwriter, or broker cannot afford to be without it. Importantly, the Report is the only publication of its kind in the United States.”

We are often asked – “How does it happen – how do you produce your Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report”?

The answer is pretty simple – we live, eat, and breathe workplace class action law 24/7.

Each and every morning we check the previous day’s filings of EEOC lawsuits and workplace class actions relative to employment discrimination, ERISA, and wage & hour claims. We do so on a national basis – both in federal courts and all 50 states. Then we check, log, and analyze every ruling on Rule 23 certification and subsidiary issues throughout federal and state trial and appellate courts. This is also done on a national basis. We put this information in our customized database; we analyze and compare the rulings on class action issues and Rule 23 topics; and then we prepare an analysis of each decision.

Our class action practitioners – a group of over 170 Seyfarth lawyers – contribute to the process of building the database and analyzing decisional law on a daily basis.

We have being doing this on a 24/7 basis for 13 years, and publishing the Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report in the first week of January of each calendar year.

The result is a compendium of workplace class action law that is unique in its analysis, scope, and comprehensiveness.

We were particularly proud when EPLiC recognized our Report as the “state-of-the-art word” on workplace class action litigation.

Thanks EPLiC. We sincerely appreciate the kudos.

We are now more than halfway through the year, and we have tracked and analyzed more class action decisions to this point in 2016 than in past years. On this pace, our 2017 Report will cover more decisions than ever before!

After A Decade Of Mixed Results, EEOC Rebrands Its Systemic Discrimination Litigation Program

Posted in EEOC Litigation

th7Y6M6GN7By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Christina M. Janice and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: With the publication of a ten-year review of its systemic discrimination program on July 7, 2016, the EEOC seeks to blunt employer and judicial scrutiny of the EEOC’s litigation practices by emphasizing its internal staffing and technological improvements, the gains it has made over time in number of people served, programmatic relief achieved, and monetary relief obtained, and its vision for the future as a nationwide law enforcement agency uniquely positioned to overcome challenges faced by the private bar in avoiding binding employment arbitration agreements and securing class-wide relief under Title VII.

As we have blogged about here  here,and here, the EEOC’s systemic discrimination program repeatedly has come under judicial scrutiny for its failure to satisfy Title VII’s jurisdictional requirements that it investigate, provide notice of, and attempt to conciliate claims before launching broad, expensive litigation against employers on those claims, as well as specific failures to bring legally sufficient or factually sustainable litigation. A 2006 Systemic Task Force Report to the Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission raised specific concerns about EEOC’s inconsistent investigations, lack of training and expertise, lack of capacity for data analyses, and an absence of incentives to properly implement a coordinated, nationwide systemic discrimination program.

Now under the leadership of Commissioner Jenny Yang, a former plaintiff’s class action lawyer for the Washington D.C. firm of Cohen, Milstein, Sellers & Toll, PLLC, the EEOC published on July 7, 2016 a ten-year a review of its efforts to improve its systemic discrimination litigation program and objectives.  Reporting an overall increase in litigation and raw dollars recovered from employers through litigation or conciliation, the EEOC review focuses on its internal efforts to grow its investigatory and litigation capacities and to transform itself into a “national law enforcement agency.”  Restating its purpose that “[t]ackling systemic discrimination — where a discriminatory pattern or practice or policy has a broad impact on an industry, company or geographic area — is central to the mission of EEOC,” the EEOC report signals employers, legislators, and courts alike that its systemic program will proceed undaunted by judicial challenges to its practices, and will continue to be driven by metrics that “incentivize” investigations, conciliations and systemic work.

Employers should pay particular attention to the metrics driving EEOC performance and the trajectory of its systemic litigation program.

Key Findings

From the fall of 2013 through August 2014, EEOC Commissioner Yang and her staff conducted a review of the EEOC’s systemic program since the implementation of the 2006 Systemic Task Force Report.  As a result of its review, the EEOC claims to have “made considerable progress in achieving a truly nationwide, coordinated, and strategic systemic program.”  Some of the key findings published in the report include:

– Investments in hiring and training staff focused on systemic work have produced a 250 percent increase in systemic investigations in the past five years.

– Concerted efforts to reach voluntary resolutions of systemic investigations have resulted in the conciliation success rate tripling from 21% in fiscal year 2007 to 64 percent in fiscal year 2015.

– The systemic litigation program has achieved significant impact, with a 10-year success rate of 94 percent for systemic lawsuits.

– The EEOC tripled the amount of monetary relief recovered for victims in the past five fiscal years from 2011 through 2015, compared to the relief recovered in the first five years after the Systemic Task Force Report.

Although EEOC does not define “success,” the report makes clear that EEOC measures success in three ways: numbers of employees who benefit from a systemic investigation and/or lawsuit, targeted programmatic relief, and the realization of dollars.

In 2014, less than 1,000 individuals were said to have benefited from successful EEOC systemic lawsuits, a sharp decline from the nearly 8,000 individuals in 2013.  However, the 2015 number soared past these figures, with nearly 10,000 individuals benefiting from successful EEOC systemic lawsuits, the most since 2008.  The EEOC reports that “significantly more individuals directly have benefited from EEOC systemic lawsuits that through individual or small multi-victim suits brought by EEOC.”

While the percentage of systemic lawsuits in the active litigation docket has remained roughly the same from 2013-2015, ranging from 22% to 25%, the EEOC reports that the percentage of resolutions with targeted equitable, or “programmatic” relief has jumped from 64% to 81.2% over the last three years.

In terms of monetary relief from the combined resolutions of systemic investigations and systemic lawsuits, the EEOC trumpets that its results have jumped from 15 resolutions totaling $5.99 million in 2006 to 296 resolutions totaling $80.28 million in 2015, with over 16,000 individuals receiving monetary relief that year.

Targeting Enforcement

Statistically, the EEOC continued to focus heavily on disability and race claims. From 2011-2015, 32% of the successful conciliations of systemic investigations involved disability discrimination, with the next highest being race at 17%.  The EEOC’s challenges to employer hiring practices dominated with 23% of successful conciliations, followed by reasonable accommodation practices at 21%.  These areas can be expected to continue as target enforcement areas for the EEOC.

In terms of federal sector compliance, the EEOC reported issuing a series of federal sector decisions finding that discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation constitutes sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII.  The report signals the EEOC’s objective of increasing its activity in these developing areas of law.

The report also makes an unusually direct pitch for the EEOC to be the litigation partner of choice in overcoming mandatory employment arbitration agreements and the challenges to the plaintiffs’ bar of bringing statistical disparate impact cases under Title VII in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision rendering class certification based on mere statistical evidence untenable in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011)

What This Means For Employers

While it certainly is not difficult to imagine the EEOC or any entity positing its best numbers when publishing a self-review, employers absolutely need to pay attention  to these results. First, the data illustrates that the EEOC is putting more time and resources into systemic cases, and as a result, has increasingly become more aggressive in their pursuit of “big fish” employers. While the number of individuals said to have benefited from systemic lawsuits has teeter-tottered up and down the last few years, the report manifests an aggressive agenda to pursue these prime lawsuits.  Thus, employers should expect systemic investigations to continue on the uptick.

Given their success in the disability context, especially with regards to hiring and reasonable accommodation, the EEOC likely will not stray from what has worked.  Thus, employers facing challenges in this area need to focus on strategies of compliance and risk avoidance.  For businesses with nationwide operations, this will require heightened communication amongst various regions and sectors to ensure compliance with the law.

The EEOC trumpets that it has hired systemic investigators, social scientists and labor economists to support its systemic discrimination program in every district, and boldly states that “[t]hey have the expertise and training to effectively manage complex investigations, to analyze relevant data, and to develop statistical evidence.”  The EEOC reports that “[i]n most years since 2008, EEOC has provided systemic training to lead systemic investigators and systemic coordinators.”   While this reporting now leaves the EEOC with little to no excuse when facing judicial scrutiny for failing to comply with Title VII’s mandate of investigating, notifying employers of the claims against them and attempting to conciliate those claims as predicates to litigation, this reporting also signals that the EEOC has increased its trained resources to grow its program.

Further, the EEOC reports a significant investment in technologies that allow personnel to access and analyze employer, regional or industry workforce demographic data to inform charges and investigations on a nationwide basis.  Employers cannot presume that investigators will deal with charges individually without reviewing all EEOC charges and investigations against an employer, and industry data, for potential systemic opportunities.

Finally, the EEOC reports a slow but steady increase in the use of Commissioner’s Charges as a vehicle for enforcement.  Employers may expect the EEOC to continue to increase its reliance on this tool in their toolkit.

The EEOC’s report states that in the future it will focus on three key, although vaguely defined, objectives in order to expand the agency’s impact and better serve the public, including: (1) executing national strategies to address persistent and emerging systemic issues; (2) advancing solutions that promote lasting opportunity in the workplace; and (3) strengthening the agency’s technology and infrastructure. With increases in systemic program resources and incentives to generate big outcomes in terms of individuals benefited, programmatic relief obtained and dollars generated, employers can expect the EEOC to cast a wide range of nets across the county in hopes that some of their catches will result in the next big systemic lawsuit.

Our loyal blog readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown Blog here

 

Don’t Mess With Texas: EEOC’s Criminal Background Check Guidance Subject To Challenge

Posted in EEOC Litigation

texasBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Pamela Q. Devata, Robert T. Szyba, and Ephraim J. Pierre

On June 27, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit handed a victory to the State of Texas in Texas v. EEOC , No. 14-10949 (5th Cir. June 27, 2016), by remanding back to the district court the case it dismissed in 2014.  Notably, Fifth Circuit held that the State of Texas has standing to challenge the EEOC’s “Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Under Title VII” (“Guidance”), and that the Guidance was a final agency rule subject to court challenge.

As a quick recap, the EEOC issued the Guidance in April 2012, urging businesses to avoid blanket rules against hiring individuals with criminal convictions, reasoning that such a hiring check could violate Title VII if they create a disparate impact on particular races or national origins, and calling for a multi-factor individualized assessment of an applicant’s criminal history.

In an unprecedented and novel action, the State of Texas filed suit against the Commission in November, 2013 seeking to enjoin the enforcement of the Guidance (which Texas nicknamed the “Felon Hiring Rule”) because it conflicted with Texas law that prohibited hiring felons for certain jobs.  On August 20, 2014, Judge Sam R. Cummings of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas dismissed the case under Federal Rule 12(b)(1) (which we reported here), finding that Texas lacked standing to maintain its suit because no enforcement action had been taken against it pursuant to the Guidance.  Texas, however, was not about to be messed with, and promptly appealed to the Fifth Circuit in November, 2014 (reported here).

Fifth Circuit Reverses And Remands

The Fifth Circuit’s decision is a stunner.

It found that Texas, in fact, has standing to challenge the Guidance because it presented “(1) an actual or imminent injury that is concrete and particularized, (2) fairly traceable to the defendant’s conduct, and redressable by a judgment in [Texas’s] favor.”  Id. at 5.  The Fifth Circuit pointed out that Texas, in its capacity as an employer, was an “object” of the Guidance because the Guidance was directed at all employers, including state agencies.  As an object of the Guidance, Texas did not need an enforcement action to establish a concrete injury.  Instead, it could establish two concrete injuries for purposes of Article III.  First, Texas pointed to the increased regulatory burden on it as an employer because of the hiring policies that the Guidance required.  Id. at 7-8.  Thus, the increased regulatory burden itself constituted a concrete injury.  Second, the Guidance forced Texas to “undergo an analysis, agency by agency, regarding whether the certainty of EEOC investigations stemming from the [] Guidance’s standards overrides the State’s interest in not hiring felons for certain jobs.”  Thus, “being pressured to change state law” constituted a concrete injury.  Id. at 8-9.  Therefore, regardless that there was no enforcement action, the Fifth Circuit concluded that Texas was deemed to have standing to challenge the Guidance.

The Fifth Circuit next determined that the Guidance was “final agency action” that is subject to challenge, finding that the Guidance was the “consummation of the agency’s decision-making process” “from which legal consequences would flow.”  Id.The challenge before the Fifth Circuit focused on whether the Guidance had any “legal consequences.”  The Fifth Circuit pointed out an important distinction for its analysis: Texas challenged the Guidance itself, not the prospect of investigation.  Rejecting the EEOC’s argument that it has no ability to enforce the Guidance and instead can only do so by referring a case to the U.S. Attorney General for prosecution (as it would have to with respect to a public entity), the Fifth Circuit found that the “legal consequence” of the Guidance is that the EEOC has committed itself to applying the Guidance to “virtually all public and private employers.”  Id. The EEOC’s staff is therefore bound by it to follow a certain course of action, and the only way to avoid a potential prosecution is by abiding by one of the two “safe harbor” provisions contained in the Guidance.  If Texas (or any other employer) does not fall into one of these safe harbor provisions — that is, it does not do what the EEOC says — it risks an enforcement action and potential liability, and thus the Guidance has a “legal consequence,” making it an final agency action that can be challenged in court.  Id.

The Dissent

Circuit Judge Patrick E. Higginbotham disagreed with the majority of the Fifth Circuit panel.  First, he opined that the Guidance was a mere expression of the EEOC’s view of what the law requires, which the EEOC has no authority to enforce without the Attorney General taking the case.  Judge Higginbotham also opined that the issue identified by Texas was not ripe for adjudication.  Because Texas presented no factual dispute, in the judge’s view the dispute was theoretical since any potential adverse effect identified by Texas was too remote and abstract.  In additional to disagreeing with the majority’s constitutional analysis, Judge Higginbotham opined that the Guidance also lacked a legal consequence because, again, it was an expression of the EEOC’s view of the law, and thus had no specific consequence for any specific party.

Implications For Employers

This case continues to be flagged as “one to watch,” especially now that the case is remanded to the district court, where the State of Texas is anticipated to challenge the “Felon Hiring Rule” created by the EEOC’s Guidance.  Likewise, the EEOC is anticipated to continue its staunch defense, positioning the parties for future clashes.  The EEOC’s positions, which thus far have included admissions that the Guidance is not “legally binding” and does not carry any “legal consequences,” stand to provide employers with additional defenses when faced with the EEOC’s own investigations or prosecutions relating to criminal background checks.  As this case continues in the district court, we will be continue our coverage of this important case.  Stay tuned!

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.

 

A Call For Harmony Between The EEOC And NLRB’s Rules Concerning Prevention And Investigation Of Workplace Harassment

Posted in EEOC Litigation

th7Y6M6GN7By Christopher J. DeGroff, Matthew Gagnon, Andrew R. Cockroft, and Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.,

Seyfarth Synopsis: The EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace offers insight into how employers’ harassment prevention policies can change for the better and, in furtherance of this desire for change, calls for interagency clarification between the EEOC and the NLRB on how employers may investigate harassment while requesting confidentiality, how they may promote general civility through workplace harassment policies, and how employers may prevent and respond to harassment through social media. 

On June 20, 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace released its final report. The report can be found here.  The report found that workplace harassment remains a persistent problem and that harassment often goes unreported. The Task Force urged that harassment prevention training must change as much of the training done over the last 30 years, which focused simply on legal compliance, has not been effective as a prevention tool. It should be noted that in reaching this finding, the Task Force admits that there are deficiencies in almost all of the empirical studies done on the effectiveness of training standing alone. However, the Task Force concluded that the existing reliable studies, along with the practical and anecdotal evidence provided by employers and trainers agree that training cannot stand alone, but must be a part of a holistic effort to prevent harassment.

The Task Force recommended that new and different training approaches should be explored to empower “bystanders” to intervene when they witness harassing behavior and training ought to be geared towards promoting respect and civility in the workplace generally, without necessarily focusing on protected characteristics. Additionally, the report suggests that employers may need to reassess their harassment reporting systems and find ways to ensure that employees believe there will be a genuine effort to resolve harassment when it is reported. The report offers recommendations and helpful tools to aid in designing anti-harassment policies, training curricula, implementing complaint, reporting and investigation procedures, and assessing and responding to workplace “risk factors” for harassment.

Additionally, employers will be happy to know that the report emphasized that the EEOC and the National Labor Relations Board should work together to harmonize the relationship between federal EEO laws and the NLRA. Employers have often struggled to comply with both federal EEO laws and the NLRA in preventing and investigating workplace harassment. This is especially true when employers craft their harassment prevention policies with a focus on workplace civility. See Karl Knauz Motors, Inc., 358 NLRB No. 164 (2012) (finding that “Courtesy” rules in the employee handbook violated the NLRA because an employee may reasonably believe that such rules prohibited statements of protest or criticism of the employer); First Transit, Inc., 360 NLRB No. 72 (2014) (same).

The same is true when employers ask for confidentiality in the course of investigating harassment, something promoted in the report but in conflict with several rulings of the NLRB finding that requests for confidentiality may burden protected concerted activity under the NLRA. Likewise, because of the ever increasing use of social media and its effect on the workplace, employers are often in the difficult position of trying to stop online harassment while simultaneously complying with decisions of the Board finding that employers’ social media policies restrict Section 7 rights if they sweep too broadly.

The report recognizes the tension such rulings may create and their potential to undermine genuine harassment prevention. As such, the report issues the following recommendations in the hopes of getting employers out of this difficult bind.

  • The EEOC and the Board should confer, consult, and attempt to jointly clarify and harmonize the interplay of the National Labor Relations Act and federal EEO statutes with regard to the permissible confidentiality of the workplace investigations, and the permissible scope of policies regulating workplace social media usage.
  • EEOC and the National Labor Relations Board should confer, consult, and attempt to jointly clarify and harmonize the interplay of the NLRA and federal EEO statutes with regard to permissible content of workplace “civility codes.”

We believe that this is a positive development from the EEOC, and we know that loyal blog readers will appreciate any efforts at interagency cooperation. We hope that these steps will bring clarity to how employers may effectively address workplace harassment while complying with all aspects of federal labor and employment law.

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.

Taking The EEOC At Its Word: Court Relies On Agency’s Own Declaration In Granting Summary Judgment

Posted in EEOC Litigation

maryland state flagBy Gerald L. Maatman Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: Court granted EEOC’s partial motion for summary judgment on issue of pre-suit conciliation, finding that a declaration submitted by an EEOC official was sufficient evidence to show that the EEOC satisfied this obligation under Title VII.

In EEOC v. Dimensions Healthcare System, No. 15-2342 (D. Md. May 27, 2016), the Commission alleged that the defendant employer, Dimensions Healthcare System (“Dimensions”), unlawfully discriminated against one of its former employees on the basis of sex after it allegedly passed her over for a promotion due to her maternity leave. The EEOC filed two motions relative to the employer’s affirmative defense based on the Commission’s alleged failure to conciliate, including: (1) for partial summary judgment on the issue of pre-suit conciliation and (2) a motion to strike portions of Dimensions’ response in opposition to the EEOC’s summary judgment motion. On May 27, 2016, Judge Hazel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland granted both of the EEOC’s motions.

The ruling, which heavily relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Mach Mining v. EEOC decision from 2015, held that a declaration submitted by an EEOC official was sufficient evidence that the government satisfied its Title VII pre-suit conciliation obligations. For employers seeking to challenge whether the EEOC met its Title VII pre-suit obligations, this ruling is instructive regarding the very low burden of proof the government needs to block the defense.

Case Background

The complainant was employed as a “Team Lead” by Dimensions, where she oversaw and managed several team members and performed various human resources tasks. Id. at 2. The complainant took maternity leave between January and April of 2014. On or around October 2014, she learned that Dimensions had promoted a less-experienced male employee, who was her subordinate, to a manager position. After learning of the promotion, the complainant met with a Dimensions executive. The executive told the complainant that while she was considered for the position, the male employee was selected instead because the complainant had been “on maternity leave for a while.” Id. Shortly thereafter, the complainant resigned and filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.

On May 11, the EEOC issued a reasonable cause determination to Dimensions. Id. at 2-3. According to the EEOC, the parties “engaged in communications” between May 11, 2015 and July 7, 2015 to provide Dimensions an opportunity to “remedy the discrimination practices described.” Id. at 3. Thereafter declaring the “communications” unsuccessful, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against Dimensions on August 10, 2015. In its answer to the complaint, Dimensions asserted the affirmative defense that the EEOC’s claims were barred to the extent it failed to properly conciliate, but later withdrew this defense.

While discovery was ongoing, the EEOC moved for partial summary judgement, arguing that Dimensions refused to stipulate that the EEOC fulfilled its pre-suit obligations. Id. at 4. Dimensions argued that there was a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the EEOC failed to conciliate prior to filing its lawsuit. The EEOC moved to strike the specific allegations contained within Dimensions’ argument regarding the conciliation process. The Court granted the EEOC’s motion for partial summary judgment and its motion to strike.

The Decision

The Court began its analysis by discussing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Mach Mining, LLC v. EEOC, 135 S. Ct. 1645 (2015), which examined whether and to what extent a federal district court can review the EEOC’s conciliation efforts. Id. at 5. Quoting Mach Mining, the Court noted that “[a] sworn affidavit from the EEOC stating that it has performed the [pre-suit] obligations . . . but that its efforts have failed will usually suffice.” Id. at 7. Further, the Court noted that “this ‘relatively barebones’ review is all that a court is permitted to inquire into when considering a failure-to-conciliate defense.” Id. Finally, discussing Mach Mining’s holding that the district court in that case erred by not striking from the record descriptions of the conciliation process, the Court opined that “[c]onfidentiality in the conciliation process is necessary.” Id.

Applied here, the Court noted that in support of its motion for partial summary judgment, the EEOC submitted the declaration of the Director of the Baltimore Field Office of the EEOC. Id. at 8. The declaration stated that after the EEOC determined there was reasonable cause to believe that Dimensions failed to promote the complainant because of her sex, it sent a letter of determination to Dimensions, and invited the employer to informally resolve the claim. Id. Further, the declaration explained that the EEOC “engaged in communications” with Dimensions and subsequently determined that further conciliation efforts would be unproductive. Id. at 8-9.

Granting the EEOC’s motion for partial summary judgment, the Court found that “[t]his evidence is sufficient for the EEOC to satisfy its burden to establish that it ‘endeavor[ed] to eliminate [the] alleged unlawful employment practice by informal methods’ prior to filing suit.” Id. at 9. Further, the “declaration establishes that the EEOC ‘tr[ied] to engage the employer in some form of discussion’ prior to filing suit.” Id. In opposition, Dimensions argued that the EEOC did not try in earnest to reach a resolution prior to litigating the case. Rejecting this argument, the Court held that “[t]hose details . . . are not only irrelevant to the scope of this Court’s review under Mach Mining, but also violate the confidentiality provision of Title VII.” Id. Accordingly, the Court granted the EEOC’s motion to strike the portions of Dimensions’ briefing regarding what was “said or done” during the conciliation process. Id.

Implications For Employers

This ruling is a very-pro Commission interpretation of the Mach Mining decision. It holds that merely mailing a demand letter and stating a settlement demand is enough. The practical realities of negotiation and give-and-take in the conciliation process are ignored. In this respect, it parts company with previous rulings on the Mach Mining issue that view the give-and-take of conciliation in a practical manner [see here].

As a result, this ruling gives employers an idea of how the EEOC will respond to challenges regarding whether it satisfied its Title VII pre-suit obligations: by submitting a declaration from one of its employees as to the mailing the determination, stating a settlement demand, and unilaterally deciding that further conciliation discussions are fruitless.

More importantly, this case illustrates how courts will likely find the EEOC’s declarations to be “sufficient evidence.” Id. Given that the EEOC only needs to submit a declaration to prove it satisfied its Title VII pre-suit obligations, employers can likely expect such conciliations to be far from fruitful if courts will now merely take the government at its word. Accordingly, employers engaged in future EEOC litigation likely have one less defense in their arsenal as a result of the Mach Mining decision.

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.

U.S. Supreme Court Rejects The Government’s Position In The Largest EEOC Fee Sanction Case Ever

Posted in EEOC Litigation

supremecourtBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Christina M. Janice, and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: In a landmark case for EEOC litigation involving fee sanctions, while employer CRST successfully argued that a ruling “on-the-merits” is not necessary to be a prevailing party, the SCOTUS remanded the case back down to the Eighth Circuit to determine whether a preclusive judgment existed and if the EEOC should be responsible to pay over $4.5 million in fees as a sanction.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its much anticipated ruling in EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc., unanimously ruling in favor of the employer. We have kept our blog readers up to date on this litigation as it wound through the lower courts and progressed at the Supreme Court.  Readers can find the previous posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

At stake was the largest fee sanction award ever levied against the EEOC — nearly $4.7 million.  While the SCOTUS remanded the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit for further proceedings, and therefore did not directly rule on the appropriateness of the record fee sanction, the Supreme Court nonetheless held that a favorable ruling on the merits is not a necessary predicate to find that a defendant is a “prevailing party” for purposes of recovering legal fees under Title VII.

Though a procedural ruling, EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc. is apt to have significant practical implications for the future of EEOC litigation.

Case Background

Finding that the EEOC’s actions in pursuing this lawsuit were unreasonable, contrary to the procedure outlined by Title VII, and imposed an unnecessary burden on the employer and the judicial process, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa granted CRST’s motion for an award of attorneys’ fees and costs, directing the EEOC to pay CRST a record fee sanction of nearly $4.7 million.  On the EEOC’s appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed and held that the District Court “did not make particularized findings of frivolousness, unreasonableness, or groundlessness as to each individual claim” and remanded these claims to the District Court to make such individualized determinations.  Further, the Eighth Circuit found that the District Court’s dismissal of 67 claims based on the EEOC’s failure to satisfy Title VII’s pre-suit obligations “[did] not constitute a ruling on the merits,” and that “[t]herefore, CRST is not a prevailing party as to these claims.”  Accordingly, the Eighth Circuit’s holding provided the EEOC some breathing room in terms of complying with its Title VII pre-suit obligations.

In its Supreme Court brief, CRST asserted two arguments as to why the Eighth Circuit’s decision was improper.  First, CRST argued that the Eighth Circuit’s rule that a prevailing defendant may recover fees only when a case is decided “on the merits” has no basis in the statute, conflicts with Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 422 (1978), and severely undermines the policy of Section 706(k) of Title VII.  Second, CRST posited that even if the “on the merits” standard applied, CRST was successful on the merits when it defeated certain claims by demonstrating that the EEOC did not investigate, find reasonable cause for, or attempt to conciliate any of these claims as required by the statute.  In essence, CRST asserted that the EEOC never identified the allegedly injured workers prior to filing its lawsuit; instead, it filed suit and then fished for the identities of the claimants by using discovery.

In its response, having abandoned its original contention that only a dismissal “on the merits” may be the subject of an attorneys’ fee award, the EEOC argued that the District Court’s finding that the EEOC failed to satisfy Title VII’s administrative preconditions to filing a lawsuit did not authorize an award of attorneys’ fees under 42 U.S.C. 2000e-5(k), because such a dismissal does not make the defendant a “prevailing party.”  The EEOC further noted the District Court’s original dismissal was not “with prejudice,” and that the later agreed-upon “with prejudice” dismissal did not and could not modify the District Court’s earlier dismissal of the claims at issue here, which had already been affirmed by the Eighth Circuit.  Finally, citing Mach Mining, LLC v. EEOC, 135 S. Ct. 1645, 1656 (2015), the EEOC also contended that the award of attorneys’ fees and costs in this litigation was improper because the Commission’s suit was not “frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless.”

During the oral arguments on March 29, 2016, the Supreme Court asked nearly twice as many questions to the EEOC’s counsel than the Justices did to CRST’s counsel.  The grilling of the government is best summarized with a notable quote from Chief Justice Roberts, who opined that conciliation without the threat of fees would not necessarily incentivize the EEOC to abide by Title VII obligations, “But if they were subject to fees because they ignored their duty to conciliate, it seems to me that might give them some incentive to get it right the first time.”  Our blog post on that argument is here.

The Supreme Court’s Ruling

In vacating the judgment of the Eighth Circuit, the Supreme Court ­unanimously held that a favorable ruling on the merits is not a necessary predicate to find that a defendant is a “prevailing party” in order to recover attorneys’ fees under Title VII.

After thoroughly detailing the intricate procedural history of this ten-year litigation, the Supreme Court initially noted the question of whether the petitioner was a prevailing party was the central issue presented by the decision of the Eighth Circuit.  Id. at 3.  The Supreme Court opined that “[c]ommon sense undermines the notion that a defendant cannot ‘prevail’ unless the relevant disposition is on the merits . . . The defendant may prevail even if the court’s final judgment rejects the plaintiff ’s claim for a non-merits reason.”  Id. at 12.  The Supreme Court reasoned that this is so because while a plaintiff seeks a “material alteration in the legal relationship between the parties that is in its favor, a defendant seeks to prevent that material alteration.  Where the defendant succeeds and the plaintiff’s challenge is “rebuffed,” the defendant prevails.  Id.

Looking beyond the letter of Title VII to Congressional intent in enacting a fee shifting statutory scheme, the Supreme Court noted that “Congress must have intended that a defendant could recover fees expended in frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless litigation when the case is resolved in the defendant’s favor, whether on the merits or not. Imposing an on-the-merits requirement for a defendant to obtain prevailing party status would undermine that congressional policy by blocking a whole category of defendants for whom Congress wished to make fee awards available.”  Id. at 13.  Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that neither the text of the fee-shifting statute nor the policy which underpins it counsels in favor of adopting the Eighth Circuit’s on-the-merits requirement.  Id. at 14.

Turning to the EEOC’s specific arguments, the Supreme Court observed that the EEOC had abandoned its defense of the Eighth Circuit’s requirement that a party prevail on the merits, and instead urged the Supreme Court to hold that a defendant must obtain a “preclusive” judgment in order to prevail.  Id.  The Supreme Court declined to decide this issue, and noted in an implied bench-slap how the EEOC “changed its argument between the certiorari and merits stages… [and] [a]s a result, the Commission may have forfeited the preclusion argument by not raising it earlier.”  Thus, the Supreme Court took issue with the EEOC’s strategy of advancing new arguments at the “11th hour,” and further noted that this tactic resulted in inadequate briefing on the issue.  Id. at 15.

In addition, the Supreme Court avoided consideration of the EEOC’s argument that even if CRST was the prevailing party, the EEOC should prevail upon the fee request because its claim that it had satisfied its pre-suit obligations was not frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless.  Noting that the Court of Appeals had not decided this “fact sensitive issue,” the Supreme Court declined to address it.  Id.

By remanding the case for further proceedings consistent with its holding that a party need not prevail “on the merits” to be eligible to recover attorney fees under Title VII, the Supreme Court left the door open for the EEOC to continue to defend against CRST’s fee petition. That being said, the record and the circumstances in the case suggest rough sledding for the EEOC on remand and the likelihood of having to face a record-setting fee sanction for its litigation tactics.

Implications For Employers

In the context of potential fee sanction motions brought by employers mired in improper EEOC litigation, the Supreme Court’s holding that a favorable ruling “on the merits” is not a necessary for an employer to seek an award of legal fees in EEOC-initiated Title VII litigation can certainly be beneficial to employers.

In practice, the SCOTUS decision may well have the significant practical effect of forcing the EEOC to “come clean” during conciliation and to provide fulsome information about the identities, number, and alleged injuries of claimants rather than threatening employers with the costs and adverse publicity of a systemic lawsuit. Clearly, a litigation strategy based on “fishing for claimants” after filing a lawsuit is a process that is likely to be deemed inconsistent with the proper utilization of taxpayer dollars for enforcing Title VII.

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.

Spokeo v. Robins: The U.S. Supreme Court Finds Concrete Injury Is Required Under Article III But Remands Back To The Ninth Circuit

Posted in Class Action Litigation

supremecourtBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Pamela Q. Devata, Robert T. Szyba, and Ephraim J. Pierre

Seyfarth Synopsis: In deciding Spokeo v. Robins, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that plaintiffs seeking to establish that they have standing to sue must show “an invasion of a legally protected interest” that is particularized and concrete — that is, the injury “must actually exist.” Bare procedural violations are not enough.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long awaited decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, No. 13-1339 (U.S. 2016), which we have been watching closely for its possible dramatic implications on the future of workplace class action litigation.

In a 6 to 2 opinion authored by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., the Supreme Court held that the Ninth Circuit’s injury-in-fact analysis under Article III was incomplete. According to the Supreme Court, of the two required elements of injury in fact, the Ninth Circuit addressed only “particularization,” but not “concreteness,” which requires a plaintiff to allege a “real” and not “abstract” injury. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court took no position on the correctness of the Ninth Circuit’s ultimate conclusion: whether Robins adequately alleged an injury in fact.

Based on its conclusion, the Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s ruling and remanded for further consideration consistent with the Opinion. Justice Thomas concurred, while Justice Ginsburg (joined by Justice Sotomayor) dissented.

Given the stakes and the subject matter, the ruling is a “must read” for corporate counsel and all employers.

The Case’s Background

This ruling is likely to have substantial impact on class action litigation overall, as we have discussed in our prior posts here, here, and here.

In Spokeo, the issues focused on the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”), which requires that consumer reporting agencies (“CRAs”) follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of its consumer reports (15 U.S.C. § 1681e(b)), issue specific notices to providers and users of information (1681e(d)), and post toll-free phone numbers to allow consumers to request their consumer reports (1681b(e)).

The purported CRA in this case was Spokeo, Inc. (“Spokeo”), which operates a “people search engine” — it aggregates publicly available information about individuals from phone books, social networks, marketing surveys, real estate listings, business websites, and other sources, which it organizes into comprehensive, easy-to-read profiles. Notably, Spokeo specifically states that it “does not verify or evaluate each piece of data, and makes no warranties or guarantees about any of the information offered . . .,” and warns that the information is not to be used for any purpose addressed by the FCRA, such as determining eligibility for credit, insurance, employment, etc.

In July 2010, Plaintiff Thomas Robins filed a putative class action alleging that Spokeo violated the FCRA because it presented inaccurate information about him. He alleged that Spokeo reported that he had a greater level of education and more professional experience than he in fact had, that he was financially better off than he actually was, and that he was married (he was not) with children (he did not have any). But beyond identifying the inaccuracies, he did not allege any actual damages. Instead, he argued that Spokeo’s alleged FCRA violation was “willful” and therefore he sought statutory damages of between $100 and $1,000 for himself, as well as for each member of the purported nationwide class.

The district court dismissed the case, finding that “where no injury in fact is properly pled” a plaintiff does not have standing to sue. In February 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the “violation of a statutory right is usually a sufficient injury in fact to confer standing” and that “a plaintiff can suffer a violation of the statutory right without suffering actual damages.”

In its petition for certiorari, Spokeo posed the following question to the Supreme Court: “Whether Congress may confer Article III standing upon a plaintiff who suffers no concrete harm and who therefore could not otherwise invoke the jurisdiction of a federal court, by authorizing a private right of action based on a bare violation of a federal statute.” Spokeo highlighted a circuit split, as the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits previously lined up with the Ninth Circuit’s approach, while the Second, Third, and Fourth Circuits generally disagreed and required an actual, concrete injury.

After being granted certiorari, Spokeo argued that the Ninth Circuit’s holding was inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s precedents, the Constitution’s text and history, and principles of separation of powers. More specifically, Spokeo argued that Robin’s bare allegations of FCRA violations, without any accompanying concrete or particularized harm, were insufficient to establish an injury in fact, and thus failed to establish Article III standing.

Robins responded that the Supreme Court’s precedent established that Congress may create private rights of action to vindicate violations of statutory rights that are redressable through statutory damages.

The U.S. Solicitor General also weighed in, appearing as an amicus in support of Robins, and argued that the Supreme Court should focus on the specific alleged injury — the public dissemination of inaccurate personal information — and, specifically, the FCRA. The Government argued that the FCRA confers a legal right to avoid the dissemination of inaccurate personal information, which is sufficient to confer standing under Article III.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

Writing for the majority on the Supreme Court, Justice Alito held that Ninth Circuit failed to consider both aspects of the injury-in-fact requirement under Article III when analyzing Robin’s alleged injury, therefore its Article III standing analysis was incomplete. Slip. Op. at *8. The Supreme Court determined that to establish injury in fact under Article III, a plaintiff must show that he or she suffered “an invasion of a legally protected interest” that is both “concrete and particularized.” Slip. Op. at *7. For an injury to be “particularized,” it “must affect the plaintiff in a personal and individual way.” Id. “Concreteness,” the Supreme Court found “is quite different from particularization.” Id. at *8. A concrete injury must “actually exist” and must be “real” and not “abstract.” Id.

The Supreme Court further stated that concreteness includes both easy to recognize tangible injuries as well as intangible injuries. Id. at 8-9. The Supreme Court instructed that when considering intangible injuries, “both history and the judgment of Congress play important roles.” Id. In particular, Congress may identify intangible harms which meet Article III’s minimum requirements. Id. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court cautioned that plaintiffs do not “automatically” meet the injury-in-fact requirement where the violation of a statutory right provides a private right of action. Id. Thus “Robins could not, for example, allege a bare procedural violation divorced from any concrete harm, and satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement of Article III.” Id. The Supreme Court also added that the “risk of real harm” may also satisfy the concreteness requirement, where harms “may be difficult to prove or measure.” Id.

Viewing the FCRA in light of these principles, the Supreme Court recognized that while Congress “plainly sought to curb the dissemination of false information by adopting procedures designed to decrease that risk . . .[,] Robins cannot satisfy the demands of Article III by alleging a bare procedural violation.” For example, the Supreme Court noted it would be “difficult to imagine how the dissemination of an incorrect zip code, without more, could work any concrete harm.” Id. at * 11.

Justice Thomas concurred, reviewing the historical development of the law of standing and its application to public and private rights of action, finding the standing requirement a key component to separation of powers.

Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, largely agreed with the majority, but nevertheless dissented. She departed from the majority’s reasoning on the issue of concreteness, but based on the injury alleged, not on the fact that concrete harm wasn’t required. Id. at *3 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting). Under her analysis, Justice Ginsburg would have found that the nature of Robin’s injury was sufficiently concrete because of his allegation that the misinformation caused by Spokeo “could affect his fortune in the job market.” Id. at *3-5 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting).

Implications For Employers

Spokeo can be interpreted as a compromise – with some useful language and reasoning for employers to use in future cases. While the Supreme Court avoided a broader question of Congress’s ability to create private rights of action and other weighty separation of powers issues, it announced the proper analytic framework for assessing the injury-in-fact requirement under Article III. The Supreme Court provided some good news for employers, consumer reporting agencies, and other corporate defendants, as well as potential plaintiffs with respect to class action litigation under a variety of federal statutes, including the FCRA. In particular, the Supreme Court was clear that alleged injuries must be both particular and concrete, meaning that injuries must be “real” and not “abstract.” Thus, a mere procedural violation without any connection to concrete harm cannot satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement of Article III.

However, the Supreme Court may not have shut the door on lawsuits alleging intangible injuries based on violations of statutory rights. While the Supreme Court’s opinion today may discourage some consumer, workplace, and other types of class actions seeking millions in statutory damages, potential litigants will likely have to be more creative in how they frame alleged injuries tied to violations of statutory rights.

Spokeo also transcends the employment context, as the constitutional requirement of Article III applies in all civil litigation. Plaintiffs seeking to file lawsuits in other regulated areas, such as under ERISA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as a host of other statutes are likewise affected by today’s decision. Without particularized, concrete injury, federal jurisdiction is beyond the reach of plaintiffs seeking statutory damages for technical violations.