supreme court sealSeyfarth Synopsis: Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its long-awaited decision in McLane Co. v. EEOC, No. 15-1248, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 2327 (U.S. 2017), a decision that clarifies the scope of review for employers facing EEOC administrative subpoenas. The Supreme Court held that such decisions are reviewable under the abuse-of-discretion standard, which is a relatively high bar of review. At the same time, the Supreme Court’s ruling clarifies that EEOC subpoenas are subject to a searching, fact-intensive review that does not lend itself to a “one size fits all” approach.

Background

This case arose out of a Title VII charge brought by a woman who worked as a “cigarette selector,” a physically demanding job, requiring employees to lift, pack, and move large bins of products. After the charging party returned from three months of maternity leave, she was required to undergo a physical capabilities evaluation that was required for all new employees and employees returning from leave or otherwise away from the physically demanding aspects of their job for more than 30 days, regardless of reason. The charging party was allowed three times to meet the level required for her position, but failed each time.  McLane then terminated her employment.

The charging party claimed that her termination was because of her gender, and further alleged disability discrimination. During the investigation of her EEOC charge, the Commission requested, among other things, a list of employees who were requested to take the physical evaluation. Although McLane provided a list that included each employee’s gender, role at the company, evaluation score, and the reason each employee had been asked to take the evaluation, the company refused to provide “pedigree information,” relative to names, social security numbers, last known addresses, and telephone numbers of employees on that list. In the process of negotiating the scope of information that would be provided, the EEOC learned that McLane used its physical evaluation on a nationwide basis. The EEOC therefore expanded the scope of its investigation to be nationwide in scope, and also filed its own charge alleging age discrimination.

The District Court refused to order the production of pedigree information, holding that it was not “relevant” to the charge at issue because that information (or even interviews of the employees on the list provided by McLane) could not shed light on whether an evaluation represented a tool of discrimination. EEOC v. McLane Company, Inc., No. 12-CV-02469 (D. Ariz. Nov. 19, 2012) (See our blog post of the District Court’s decision here.)

On October 27, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit reviewed the District Court’s decision de novo and held that the District Court had erred in finding the pedigree information irrelevant to the EEOC’s investigation. EEOC v. McLane Company, Inc., Case No. 13-15126, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 187702 (9th Cir. Oct. 27, 2015). (See our blog post of the Ninth Circuit’s decision here.)

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the disagreement among the courts of appeals regarding the appropriate scope of review on appeal. The posture of the appeal was somewhat unusual because, after the grant of certiorari, the EEOC and McLane both agreed that the District Court’s decision should be reviewed for abuse of discretion, although the EEOC argued that the Ninth Circuit’s decision should stand as a matter of law. The Supreme Court therefore appointed an amicus curiae to defend the Ninth Circuit’s use of de novo review.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court began its analysis by noting that in the absence of explicit statutory command, the proper scope of appellate review is based on two factors: (1) the history of appellate practice; and (2) whether one judicial actor is better positioned than another to decide the issue in question.

Regarding the first factor, the Supreme Court noted that abuse-of-discretion review was the longstanding practice of the courts of appeals when reviewing a decision to enforce or quash an administrative subpoena. In particular, the Supreme Court noted that Title VII had conferred on the EEOC the same subpoena authority that the National Labor Relations Act had conferred on the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”), and decisions of district court to enforce or quash an NLRB subpoena were reviewed for abuse of discretion.

Regarding the second factor, the Supreme Court held that the decision to enforce or quash an EEOC subpoena is case-specific, and one that does not depend on a neat set of legal rules. Rather, a district court addressing such issues must apply broad standards to “multifarious, fleeting, special, narrow facts that utterly resist generalization.” McLane Co. v. EEOC, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 2327, at *14 (U.S. 2017) (quoting Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U. S. 552, 561-62 (1988)). In particular, in order to determine whether evidence is relevant, the district court has to evaluate the relationship between the particular materials sought and the particular matter under investigation. These types of fact-intensive considerations are more appropriately done by the district courts rather than the courts of appeals.

The Amicus argued that the district court’s primary role is to test the legal sufficiency of the subpoena, which does not require the exercise of discretion. The Supreme Court held that this view of the abuse-of-discretion standard was too narrow. The abuse-of-discretion standard is not only applicable where a decision-maker has a broad range of choices as to what to decide, but also extends to situations where it is appropriate to give a district court’s decision an unusual amount of insulation from appellate revision for functional reasons. Those functional considerations weighed in favor of the abuse-of-discretion standard rather than a de novo standard of review. Because the Ninth Circuit did not apply that standard on appeal, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit for further proceedings.

Implications For Employers

The McLane case is important for employers because it clarifies the standard of review that is applied to the review of district court decisions enforcing or quashing EEOC subpoenas. Although the Supreme Court adopted the more “hands off” abuse-of-discretion standard, thus giving even more weight to the district court’s judgment, it did so because it identified the fact-intensive nature of these judgment calls, including important decisions about how difficult it would be for the employer to produce the requested information weighed against the need for that information, and the relationship between the particular materials sought and the particular matter under investigation.

At the very least, this language shows that the EEOC does not get to automatically presume relevance of its administrative subpoenas at the outset, as the EEOC sometimes likes to argue. Rather, employers should be able to cite to language in the Supreme Court’s opinion to reinforce the fact that the district court must give serious consideration to issues of relevancy and burden (also whether the subpoena is “too indefinite” or for an “illegitimate purpose”) when deciding whether to enforce an EEOC subpoena.

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

 

200px-NDAla_sealSeyfarth Synopsis: An Alabama district court granted a temporary staffing company’s motion to dismiss all claims in one of the EEOC’s most high-profile lawsuits asserting hiring discrimination and abuse of vulnerable workers. The ruling illustrates the procedural defenses that employers possess to ensure that pre-lawsuit investigations undertaken by the EEOC accord with its obligations under the law.

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A recent mission of the EEOC has been to aggressively pursue lawsuits on behalf of “vulnerable workers” who may not always be aware of their rights. A result of the EEOC’s recent aggressiveness is that the Commission often neglects to fulfill its pre-suit obligations under Title VII and overlooks jurisdictional requirements when racing to the courthouse. These tactics came under scrutiny in EEOC v. Labor Solutions of Alabama, Inc. f/k/a East Coast Labor Solutions, No. 16-CV-1848 (N.D. Ala. Mar. 17, 2017), where Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama granted Labor Solutions of Alabama, Inc.’s (“LSA”) motion to dismiss the EEOC’s complaint. The Court found that the EEOC lacked subject-matter jurisdiction and failed to exhaust its administrative remedies after suing LSA for alleged conduct that occurred by its supposed predecessor before LSA was ever formed.

This ruling is a signal victory for employers involved in EEOC litigation regarding potential successor liability, as well as any employer involved in EEOC litigation where the Commission fails to exhaust its pre-suit duties under Title VII.

Case Background

The EEOC investigated charges of discrimination against a company called East Coast Labor Solutions, LLC (“East Coast”), alleging that East Coast discriminated against the charging parties on the basis of their national origin and failed to accommodate their disabilities. Following its investigation, the EEOC issued East Coast a letter of determination finding reasonable cause to believe that Title VII and the ADA were violated with respect to the charging parties and a class of current and former employees. Id. at 8.  The EEOC thereafter unsuccessfully attempted to conciliate with East Coast.  In November 2013, East Coast ceased operations.  LSA was formed in October 2014.

Despite the fact that LSA was not in existence when the alleged misconduct occurred, the EEOC filed a Complaint alleging that LSA subjected the Claimants to discriminatory treatment based on their national origin and failed to accommodate their disabilities. While East Coast partnered with its owner Labor Solutions (a different entity than LSA), the only Defendant named in the lawsuit was LSA.  Thereafter, LSA moved to dismiss the Complaint because it failed to allege that LSA employed the Claimants, thereby meaning the Complaint should be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim under Title VII and the ADA. Id. at 9.  LSA also argued that the EEOC failed to exhaust administrative prerequisites, noting that LSA was not named in the original EEOC charge or in any amendment thereto.

The Courts Decision

The Court granted LSA’s motion to dismiss. First, the Court addressed the EEOC’s argument that it alleged plausible facts to infer so-called “successor liability.” Id. at 11.  After thoroughly examining various Eleventh Circuit precedents regarding successor liability, the Court explained that “[a]lthough the Court agrees with the EEOC that successorship does not have to be conclusively determined at this stage of the litigation, that does not absolve the agency from pleading facts which make its existence plausible.” Id. at 26.

Applied here, the Court determined there were “no facts suggesting substantial (or even any) continuity in business operations from East Coast to LSA. The Complaint contains no allegations that there was any sale of East Coast, or any of its assets, to LSA.”  Id. at 27.  Finding there was no successor liability, the Court further reasoned that East Coast had been defunct nearly an entire year before LSA was formed; there was no allegation that LSA employed substantially the same work force and/or supervisors as East Coast; the Complaint did not allege that LSA operated at the same location as East Coast; there was no allegation as to whether East Coast could have provided relief before or after any alleged sale or transfer; and there was no allegation as to whether LSA could provide any relief now.

The Court further rejected the EEOC’s argument that East Coast and LSA were both temporary staffing agencies and that both entities shared the same managing officers, principal office address, and company email accounts, holding this was not enough to demonstrate continuity when one considered the break in time between when East Coast ceased operations and LSA began. Finally, the Court opined that even if the Complaint had plausibly alleged that LSA was the successor to East Coast, it would still be dismissed since it was undisputed that LSA was not named in the original EEOC charge, or in any subsequent amendment.  Accordingly, the Court granted LSA’s motion to dismiss, but noted the EEOC may file an amended complaint to attempt to cure its deficiencies.

Implications For Employers

For employers with intricate corporate structures and ties to defunct entities, this ruling is a major victory. Employers with corporate officers who previously worked at a similar but defunct entity can use this ruling to as a roadmap to navigate EEOC lawsuits concerning allegations from before their business was ever formed. In sum, this is yet another example of a court pumping the brakes on procedurally improper EEOC litigation.

Readers can also find this on our EEOC Countdown Blog here.

#16-3836 2017 WCAR Front Cover for WordBy Lorie Almon, Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., and Ian Morrison

Seyfarth’s Annual Workplace Class Action Report Webinar is next Tuesday, February 21, 2017. Click here to register and attend. It’s free!

As we face a new year, Seyfarth is pleased to offer strategic guidance through our 13th Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report. Across all varieties of workplace litigation, class action dynamics increasingly have been shaped and influenced by recent rulings in the U.S. Supreme Court. This past year the Supreme Court issued several key decisions on complex employment litigation issues and accepted more cases for review that are posed for rulings this coming year. Some decisions may be viewed as hostile to the expansive use of Rule 23, while others are hospitable and strengthen the availability of class actions against employers.

For an interactive analysis of 2016 decisions and emerging trends, please join us for our annual webinar. The Report’s author, Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., along with Lorie Almon, chair of our wage & hour group, and Ian Morrison, co-chair of our ERISA class action group, will cover a changed national landscape in workplace class action litigation.   In our workplace class action webinar, highlights from the Report will outline a number of key trends for employers in 2017, including:

  • The implications and fall-out from the Supreme Court’s key decisions on complex employment litigation and class action issues of 2016, and discussion of the cases accepted for review that are posed for rulings in 2017.
  • Lessons to be learned from the monetary value of the top employment-related class action settlements and why they declined significantly in 2016 after they reached all-time highs in 2014 and 2015.
  • The background on why more favorable class certification rulings for the plaintiffs’ bar were issued in 2016 than in past years.
  • How the private plaintiffs’ bar is likely to “fill the void” after the Trump inauguration and increase the number of wage & hour lawsuit filings in 2017, following case filing statistics reflecting that wage & hour litigation filings decreased over the past year for the first time in a decade.
  • Why there were more conditional certification and decertification decisions in the wage & hour space than in any other area of workplace class action litigation.
  • The dynamics behind the U.S. Department of Labor and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s continued aggressive litigation approaches in 2016 and what is in store for government enforcement litigation under the Trump Administration.

The date and time of the webinar is February 21, 2017:

1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time

12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. Central Time

11:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. Mountain Time

10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Pacific Time

Speakers: Lorie Almon, Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., and Ian Morrison

 

 

supreme courtSeyfarth Synopsis: As profiled in our recent publication of the 13th Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report, the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings have a profound impact on employers and the tools they may utilize to defend high-stakes litigation. Rulings by the Supreme Court in 2016 were no exception.

Is The Supreme Court Pro-Worker Or Pro-Employer?

Over the past decade, the U.S. Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Roberts increasingly has shaped the contours of complex litigation exposures through its rulings on class action and governmental enforcement litigation issues. Many of these decisions have elucidated the requirements for pursuing employment-related class actions. The decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011), and the decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 (2013), are the two most significant examples. Those rulings are at the core of class certification issues under Rule 23. To that end, in 2016, federal and state courts cited Wal-Mart in 536 rulings in 2016; they cited Comcast in 216 cases.

Over the past several years, the Supreme Court has accepted more cases for review – and issued more rulings than ever before that have impacted the prosecution and defense of class actions and government enforcement litigation. The past year continued that trend, with several key decisions on complex employment litigation and class action issues, and more cases accepted for review that are posed for rulings in 2017. The key class action decisions this past year in the Tyson Foods and Spokeo cases were arguably more pro-plaintiff and pro-class action than business-oriented or anti-class action.  While the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Roberts is often thought to be pro-business, the array of its key rulings impacting class action workplace issues is anything but one-dimensional. Some decisions may be viewed as hostile to the expansive use of Rule 23, while others are hospitable and strengthen the availability of class actions and/or make proof requirements easier for plaintiffs.  Further, the Supreme Court declined several opportunities to impose more restraints on class actions, and by often deciding cases on narrow grounds, it has left many gaps to be filled in by and thereby has fueled disagreements arising amongst lower federal courts. Suffice it to say, the range of rulings form a complex tapestry that precludes an overarching generalization that the Supreme Court is either pro-business or pro-worker on class actions.

Rulings In 2016

In terms of direct decisions by the Supreme Court impacting workplace class actions, this past year was no exception. In 2016, the Supreme Court decided seven cases five employment-related cases and two class action cases that will influence complex employment-related litigation in the coming years.

These rulings included two wage & hour cases, two statutory violation cases (under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”)), two ERISA cases, and one EEOC case.  A rough scorecard of the decisions reflects three distinct plaintiff-side victories, defense-oriented rulings in three cases, and one toss-up.

Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, et al., 136 S. Ct. 1036 (2016)Tyson Foods involved review of a ruling where workers pursued class claims u14-1146_0pm1nder the FLSA and Iowa state law for unpaid work and overtime for time spent putting on and taking off hard hats, work boots, hair nets, aprons, gloves, and earplugs. The employer objected to class certification on a host of grounds, including that the variations in protective gear, the differences in the time to don and doff the gear, and the varying hours worked gave rise to individualized issues precluding class certification.  The workers proved their donning and doffing time and their hours over 40 hours per week based on expert testimony via a time and motion study that calculated average times donning and doffing. At trial the jury awarded $2.89 million to 3,344 class members, which the district court increased to $5.8 million with liquidated damages, and the Eight Circuit affirmed.  In a 6 to 2 decision, the Supreme Court answered the vexing “trial by formula” problem it touched upon in Wal-Mart, and determined that the representative evidence offered via statistics and expert testimony was appropriate in this case, and supported both class certification and the jury verdict for the class. The Supreme Court declined to craft a general rule governing the use of statistical evidence, or so-called representative evidence, in all types of class actions, although in general it elucidated when such evidence would be allowed in a class action and when class members can rely on statistical samples to establish their claims. For these reasons, more so than the other Supreme Court case in 2016, Tyson Foods was the Rule 23 workplace class action decision of the year.  The ruling opens a door that many thought the Supreme Court closed in Wal-Mart and Comcast, and provides plaintiffs’ counsel with a new theoretical approach for class certification. Most notably, the dissenters in Tyson Foods claimed that the Supreme Court had turned its back on Comcast by redefining and diluting the predominance standard for class certification under Rule 23(b)(3).

Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016) – Widely considered the 13-1339dif_3m92other key class action ruling of the past Supreme Court term, Spokeo concerned whether people without an injury can still file class actions. The case involved whether a job applicant had the ability to bring a complaint against credit reporting firms under the FCRA, where the plaintiff alleged that a people search engine violated the FCRA when it reported he was wealthy and had a graduate degree; in reality, he was struggling to find work. The district court had dismissed the lawsuit because plaintiff lacked standing, and the Ninth Circuit reversed. In its 6 to 2 ruling, the Supreme Court held that the wrong analysis of standing had been undertaken, and it remanded the case for further findings. In so doing, the Supreme Court articulated that standing requires a showing of a “concrete injury” that is not necessarily synonymous with a tangible injury. Hence, certain types of intangible harms may be sufficient to satisfy standing requirements. The decision reflects that the Supreme Court’s class action jurisprudence has taken a more nuanced and measured approach toward constraints on the ability of representative parties to litigate class actions. By opening the door to more expanded standing principles, Spokeo is apt to subject employers to more litigation under statutes like the FCRA.

EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc., 136 S. Ct. 1642 (2016) – This case concerned the largest fee sanction award approximately $4.7 million ever issued against the EEOC. It arose from a systemic sexual harassment lawsuit that the agency lost for failing to meet pre-suit obligations relative to the claims of 67 female employees for whom the EEOC sued, but whose claims the Commission failed to investigate before filing suit. The dispute over legal fees arose when the employer subsequently secured a fee award for its expenditures in fighting the claims. The Eighth Circuit subsequently upended that award on the basis that the district court improperly ruled that it had to determine on an individual basis whether each of the 67 claims in question were frivolous or groundless (and as the employer’s victory on procedural grounds was not a victory on the merits). On further appeal to the Supreme Court, it unanimously held that a favorable outcome on the merits is not a prerequisite for an employer to recover fees against the EEOC. As a result, it remanded the case for an examination of the fee issue and resuscitated the employer’s quest to recover millions of dollars from the Commission. In so doing, it gave the EEOC a significant bench-slap over its arguments. While the decision dealt specifically with Title VII’s attorneys’ fee provision, it is likely that the attorneys’ fee provisions in many other statutes will be intercepted in a similar fashion.

Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, et al., 136 S. Ct. 663 (2016)Campbell-Ewald concerned whether a company can moot and defeat a class action brought under the TCPA by offering a settlement by way of a Rule 68 offer of judgment, and what happens to potential class actions when such proposals are accepted. In this case, defendant made the Rule 68 offer before plaintiff filed a motion for class certification, and it moved to dismiss the lawsuit as moot after plaintiff declined the offer. In a 6 to 3 ruling, the Supreme Court held that under basic contract principles, an unaccepted offer creates no lasting right or obligation, and plaintiff’s claims were not rendered moot. In so ruling, the Supreme Court eliminated a potential defense strategy that employers had used to eviscerate class actions with “pick off” offers to the named plaintiff.

Amgen, Inc. v. Harris, et al., 136 S. Ct. 758 (2016) – In this unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded a breach of fiduciary duty claim under the ERISA on the grounds that ERISA fiduciaries that manage publically-traded employee stock investments in 401(k) plans need not overcome a presumption of prudence. In so ruling, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its ruling in Fifth Third Bank v. Dudenhoeffer, 134 S. Ct. 2459 (2014). The Supreme Court reversed on the basis that the Ninth Circuit imposed too low of a burden on plaintiffs when attempting to show that the ERISA fiduciaries should have done something to halt the decline in stock values.

Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro, et al., 136 S. Ct. 2117 (2016) – This case involved interpretation of an exemption for service advisors at automobile dealerships who sued for unpaid overtime under the FLSA. The district court had dismissed the claim on the basis of an exemption for salesmen, partsmen, and mechanics under the FLSA, but the Ninth Circuit reversed on the basis of an interpretative regulation of the DOL in 2011 (that reversed the DOL’s position on the exemption without explanation). In a 6 to 2 ruling, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision, holding that reliance on the DOL’s interpretative regulation lacked the force of law because it was arbitrary and capricious. The Supreme Court criticized the DOL’s position and instructed the Ninth Circuit to reinterpret the FLSA exemption without giving any deference to the DOL’s 2011 regulation.

Gobeille, et al. v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., 136 S. Ct. 936 (2016) – In this case, the Supreme Court held in a 6 to 2 ruling that a Vermont state law – that required the disclosure of payments relating to healthcare claims and information about healthcare services – was preempted by the ERISA to the extent the Vermont law applied to ERISA-governed plans. In so ruling, the Supreme Court articulated the contours of how the ERISA preempts state law attempts to regulate healthcare benefit issues.

The decisions in Spokeo, Campbell-Ewalt, and Tyson Foods are sure to shape and influence class action litigation in a profound manner relative to preemptive defense strategies and “pick-off” attempts, standing concepts, and statistical evidence for class certification and proof of class claims for damages. To the extent that extrinsic restrictions on class actions – i.e., limits on the ability of representative plaintiffs to litigate class actions, such as Article III standing concepts and the mootness doctrine – are relaxed or lessened (as in Spokeo and Campbell-Ewalt), class actions are easier to maintain and litigate. Further, Tyson Foods is certainly a setback for employers and reflects an approach to class certification that seems at odds with Wal-Mart and Comcast. To that end, one indication of their impact is the fact that after the Supreme Court’s rulings in these cases, lower federal and state courts cited Spokeo in 365 decisions, cited Campbell-Ewald in 185 decisions, and cited Tyson Foods in 104 decisions during the remainder of 2016.

Amgen, Navarro, Gobeille, and CRST Van Expedited are also apt to shape the future of workplace  litigation in the contexts of ERISA fiduciary duty claims, deference to DOL regulations in wage & hour litigation, ERISA preemption, and claims for breaches of statutory duty against the EEOC. While arguably defense-oriented rulings, they are not as significant for employers as Spokeo, Campbell-Ewalt, and Tyson Foods are for plaintiffs.

Rulings Expected In 2017

Equally important for the coming year, the Supreme Court accepted five additional cases for review in 2016 that are likely to be decided in 2017 that also will impact and shape class action litigation and government enforcement lawsuits faced by employers. Those cases include four employment lawsuits and one class action case. The Supreme Court undertook oral arguments on two of these cases in 2016; the other three will have oral arguments in 2017. The corporate defendants in each case have sought rulings seeking to limit the use of class actions or control government enforcement lawsuits.

NLRB v. SW General, No. 15-1251 – In this case, which was argued on November 7, 2016, the Supreme Court will determine whether an unfair labor practice charge was unauthorized due to the NLRB’s acting general counsel serving in violation of a federal statute in terms of NLRB procedure. The Supreme Court is apt to decide the scope of Presidential authority with executive agencies, the contours of federal labor law, and a blueprint for how future Administrations can exercise power over labor policies.

Microsoft v. Baker, et al., No. 15-457 – Although not an employment case, this case may well impact the ability of employers to defend class action litigation. It involves a consumer fraud class action where the district court denied class certification, which was reversed on appeal by the Ninth Circuit. The Supreme Court will determine the impact and implications in a class action when the named plaintiffs voluntarily dismiss their claims with prejudice while others in the class wish to proceed with the class litigation. This case is expected to be set for oral argument in 2017.

Czyzewski, et al, v. Jevic Holding, No. 15-649 –  Argued on December 7, 2016, this case involves the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (“WARN”) Act and the interplay between worker rights under that statute and bankruptcy proceedings after a company allegedly violates the WARN Act. The Supreme Court likely will determine whether priority in distributing assets in bankruptcy may proceed in a manner that allegedly violates the priority scheme in the Bankruptcy Code. The case also may decide rules for priority in reorganizations and liquidations that impact employers and workers in economically challenged industries and organizations.

EEOC v. McLane Co., Inc., No. 15-1248 – In this case, the Supreme Court will examine whether a district court’s decision to quash or enforce a subpoena in an EEOC administrative enforcement proceeding should be reviewed de novo, or reviewed deferentially. The process of responding to or challenging an EEOC subpoena may become considerably more expensive if the Supreme Court sides with the Commission’s position, especially as the EEOC been exceedingly aggressive in pursuing systemic administrative investigations through liberal use of subpoenas for all sorts of employer data. This case is expected to be set for oral argument in 2017.

Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton, et al., No. 16-74 – In this case (a consolidation of three separate appeals), the Supreme Court will examine whether church-affiliated hospitals are exempt from the ERISA. The hospitals assert that their retirement plans are excluded from the ERISA’s coverage and that they should not face class actions over alleged breaches of fiduciary obligations and minimum funding requirements. This case is expected to be set for oral argument in 2017.

The Supreme Court is expected to issue decisions in these five cases in 2017.

Each decision may have significant implications for employers and for the defense of high-stakes workplace litigation.

The Key Decision Expected In 2017

On January 13, 2017, 3 cases were accepted for review that pose what may be the most important issue for employers presently before the Supreme Court on the legality of class action waivers in arbitration agreements. Those cases – NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc. (No. 16-307), Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis (No. 16-285), and Ernst & Young, LLP v. Morris (No. 16-300) – will examine whether a class action waiver illegally interferes with the right of employees under the National Labor Relations Act to engage in concerted activity for their mutual aid or protection if the waiver precludes them from pursuing class or collective actions in any judicial forum.

Hanging in the balance is a litigation management tool that many employers have utilized with success to combat and minimize their exposure to class actions and collective actions.

Filling The Scalia Vacancy On The U.S. Supreme Court

Days out from the Presidential inauguration, the Supreme Court remains shorthanded after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February of 2016. The potential exists for 4-to-4 deadlocks on key issues. Given the timing of President Trump’s nomination for Justice Scalia’s successor, the Supreme Court is apt to be short one member until the late spring or potentially even longer given the politics and logistics of the confirmation process.

In terms of the impact of the successor to Justice Scalia, it is reasonable to assume that he or she will be conservative and cut more in the mold of the types of judges that President Trump described in his campaign in terms of the significance of the judicial process in general and the Supreme Court in particular. While the current ideological alignments on the Supreme Court are fragile, a “conservative” replacement of Justice Scalia would almost certainly preserve the current moderate-conservative approach to class action questions. That being said, Justice Scalia had an outsized influence on class action issues during his tenure on the Supreme Court. As illustrated by his opinions in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes and Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, Justice Scalia advocated putting the spotlight on class action litigation, and the consistent thread of his opinions were to make class actions more difficult to certify and more challenging  to win. In sum, skeptics of class actions lost their strongest judicial ally, and his passing likely will weaken the intellectual championing of counter-points to a future rebound of class action jurisprudence at the Supreme Court.

For more in depth analysis of workplace class action trends, please click here to order Seyfarth’s 2017 Workplace Class Action Report eBook and here to download Chapter 1 on the 2017 Executive Summary/Key Trends.  Our annual webinar on the Report is now set for February 21, 2017, click here to register.

f41e0e294d1b6ebf550c2badccce4b68Seyfarth Synopsis: In the high-profile EEOC race discrimination litigation against Bass Pro, the Court denied the EEOC’s motion for a ruling that would have allowed it to include in its § 706 claims those individuals who had not yet applied to work for Bass Pro when the mandatory Title VII conciliation process took place.

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The latest chapter of the EEOC’s race discrimination case against Bass Pro (which we blogged about here and here) involves yet another attempt by the government to cast a broad net and increase the number of claimants in its lawsuit.  This week, in EEOC v. Bass Pro Outdoor World, LLC, et al., Case No. 11-CV-3425 (S.D. Tex. Jan. 3, 2017), Judge Keith P. Ellison of the U.S. District Court for Southern District of Texas denied the EEOC’s motion for a ruling that would have allowed it to include claims in its lawsuit for individuals who had not yet applied to work for Bass Pro at the time conciliation took place, which is a mandatory pre-suit duty under Title VII.

For employers confronted with EEOC litigation, this ruling is positive in that shows how courts may be unwilling to allow to the EEOC to add claimants with whom it never conciliated.

Case Background

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).  On March 4, 2014, the Court issued several rulings (which we blogged about here) regarding whether the EEOC had satisfied Title VII’s pre-suit requirements.  Id. at 1.  At the outset, the Court ruled that it must undertake a distinct analyses of the EEOC’s § 706 and § 707 claims on the issue of conciliation.  Accordingly, the Court held that while the EEOC had satisfied Title VII’s conciliation requirements with regards to its § 707 claims, it failed to do so with its § 706 claims.  The Court thus ordered a stay as the remedy for the EEOC’s failure to properly conciliate the § 706 claims.  Id. at 1-2.  Further, the Court dismissed from the case all individuals who had not yet applied to work for Bass Pro by April 26, 2010, the date on which the EEOC issued its Letter of Determination (hereinafter “post-LOD applicants”).  The Court reasoned that the EEOC could not have possibly conciliated the claims of these individuals as they had not yet applied to work for Bass Pro at the time the conciliation took place.

On July 30, 2014, in reversing an earlier ruling, the Court held (as we blogged about here) that the EEOC may prove its § 706 claims using the framework established in Franks v. Bowman Transportation Company, Inc., 424 U.S. 747 (1976), and later refined in International Brotherhood of Teamsters v. United States, 431 U.S. 324 (1977).  Id. at 2.  The Court further held that the EEOC had satisfied its Title VII administrative prerequisites (including its duties to investigate and conciliate) with regards to its § 706 claims, even for individuals not specifically identified in the investigation.  After this ruling was affirmed by the Fifth Circuit, the EEOC argued that the post-LOD applicants must be restored to eligibility in the § 706 class. 

The Decision

The Court denied the EEOC’s motion for a ruling that the post-LOD applicants were eligible to participate with respect to the EEOC’s § 706 claims.  The EEOC claimed that Court’s dismissal of the post-LOD applicants was fundamentally tied to two rulings that were subsequently overturned: (1) that the § 706 and § 707 claims must be analyzed separately on the issue of conciliation, and (2) that the Franks/Teamsters model could not be applied to § 706 claims.  The Court rejected this argument, noting that when it dismissed the post-LOD applicants, it made no reference to those arguments and instead focused on the proper sequence of EEOC enforcement under Title VII.  Id. at 3.  Referencing its March 4, 2014 order, the Court explained that because by definition the post-LOD applicants applied after the EEOC’s investigation was completed, the EEOC could not possibly have conciliated their claims.  Accordingly, the Court opined that its reversal on the issues of separate conciliation and the application of the Franks/Teamsters model had no effect on the dismissal of the post-LOD applicants.  Thus, the Court denied the EEOC’s motion and held that the post-LOD applicants remained ineligible for the § 706 claims.

Implications For Employers

For employers facing EEOC litigation, any ruling that limits the size of the case is no doubt favorable in terms of minimizing potential financial exposure.  While employers should be encouraged by this Court’s willingness to hold the EEOC to its obligation to conciliate, there are several recent cases that argue that the courts’ review of the EEOC’s Title VII pre-suit duties remains limited.  Ideally, this ruling will send the EEOC a message that it must abide by the conciliation process or risk losing its ability to bring suit on behalf of claimants with whom it did not conciliate.

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

2017 EEOC Book Cover Design (3)We are once again pleased to offer our loyal readers our annual analysis of the five most intriguing developments in EEOC litigation in 2016, along with a pre-publication preview of our annual report on developments and trends in EEOC-initiated litigation. That book, titled EEOC-Initiated Litigation: FY 2016, is a thorough analysis of the lawsuits that were filed by the EEOC in FY 2016 (spanning October 2015 through September 2016), and the major decisions impacting EEOC litigation.

We have analyzed those filings and decisions to provide our loyal readers with a comprehensive examination of trends affecting EEOC litigation. Every employer wants to avoid becoming a target of a government lawsuit. We believe the best way to do that is to develop a clear understanding of the EEOC’s enforcement agenda, litigation activities, and priorities. Our annual report is intended to give corporate counsel, HR professionals, and other decision-makers the tools they need to keep their companies out of the line of fire.

This year’s report once again analyzes enforcement trends impacting employers in the retail, hospitality, manufacturing, healthcare, national resources/construction, and business services industries. That analysis can be found here.

We have also organized the substantive developments according to the EEOC’s strategic priorities. FY 2016 was the last year of the EEOC’s 2012 Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP). Now is a perfect time to look back and take stock of what the EEOC has actually done with respect to each of those priorities over the past four years.  We think our readers will benefit from understanding how the EEOC interpreted and advanced those priorities over the past four years, especially since the new SEP (covering FY 2017-2021) identifies the exact same priorities.

The full publication will be offered for download as an eBook. To order a copy, please click here.

We always like to end our year with a look back at some of the most interesting decisions and developments of the year. Here is our list of the “top five” most intriguing developments of 2016:

FY 2017-2021 Strategic Enforcement Plan

In FY 2016, the EEOC created and announced a new SEP for fiscal years 2017 through 2021. The new SEP establishes the enforcement priorities that will guide its enforcement efforts over the next four years. Our readers can read all about it here.  We closely monitored how the EEOC adjusted its tactics and enforcement agenda in light of its previous SEP and found that it was a reliable guide to how the EEOC pursues its enforcement agenda. The same will probably be true of the new SEP as well.

The new SEP identifies the same six priorities as the earlier SEP. However, it added two substantive areas of focus regarding what it sees as developing and emerging issues in the workplace. Those include “complex” employment relationships, such as temporary workers, staffing agencies, independent contractor relationships, and those that arise in the on-demand economy. The EEOC also identified “backlash discrimination” against Muslims, Sikhs, and other persons of Arab, Middle Eastern, or South Asian descent. Employers that operate within any of the “complex” employment relationships identified by the EEOC, or who employ sizable populations of Muslim or Middle Eastern workers, should take heed.

Continuing Impact Of Mach Mining v. EEOC, 135 S. Ct. 1645 (2015).

In Mach Mining, LLC v. EEOC, the Supreme Court unanimously held that the EEOC’s statutorily-required conciliation activities are subject to judicial review. At the same time, however, the Court outlined a very narrow scope of that review. The Court then left it to the lower courts to harmonize those two aspects of its ruling. Despite some initial victories for employers, courts deciding cases in FY 2016 have tended to find that the EEOC had met its obligation, even when the evidence amounted to little more than the EEOC’s say-so and was contradicted by the employer. The die is not cast just yet, but if this trend continues, it may become much more difficult for employers to contest the EEOC’s “take it or leave it” approach to the conciliation process. Our analysis of this trend can be found here.

Continued Focus On LGBT Discrimination

The EEOC has expended considerable effort advocating for the protection of LGBT rights under the existing anti-discrimination laws. In 2012, it decided – in its own administrative decision – that transgender discrimination is a form of sex discrimination because it is tantamount to discrimination on the basis of a perceived failure to adhere to gender stereotypes. Over the next few years it successfully used that decision to obtain favorable precedent in the federal courts. The EEOC is now using the same tactics to try to establish that Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. On July 15, 2015, the EEOC issued another administrative opinion, which held that Title VII extends to claims of sexual orientation discrimination. It then filed two lawsuits in FY 2016 that allege sexual orientation discrimination, one of which survived a motion to dismiss. Employers should expect that these LGBT issues will remain a centerpiece of the EEOC’s enforcement agenda under the new SEP. Our discussion of these developments can be found here.

New EEO-1 Reporting Requirements

The EEO-1 Report requires employers with more than 100 employees (and federal contractors or subcontractors with more than 50 employees) to collect and provide to the EEOC certain demographic information in each of ten job categories. On February 1, 2016, the EEOC proposed changes to the EEO-1 report, which would require employers to submit employee compensation data by gender, race, and ethnicity. Unless implementation is delayed or stopped, employers will have to start filing these new reports on March 31, 2018. Many employers expect and fear that the EEOC will use this new data to bring more lawsuits under the EPA and Title VII alleging wage discrimination. We discuss these new regulations here.

Political Changes

The most significant political development that will shape the EEOC’s agenda in the coming years is the election of Trump as the next president of the United States. For at least the first two years of Trump’s administration, he will have a Republican majority in both houses of Congress. The EEOC has increasingly relied on large, high-impact “systemic” cases to push forward its strategic goals. These types of cases can have a big impact because they tend to affect a larger number of employees and employers. But those tactics have also been roundly criticized by Republican members of Congress and are a likely target for reform under the new Republican leadership. At minimum, the new administration will bring significant changes to the high-level leadership at the EEOC. That alone will have a significant impact on the EEOC’s strategic direction. Our predictions regarding these changes can be found here.

FY 2016 is shaping up to be a fulcrum year in terms of the EEOC’s enforcement agenda. Not only does it mark the end of the FY 2013-2016 SEP and the beginning of a new SEP, but also it brings with it the uncertainty of an entirely new political climate and a change-over in the party occupying the White House. In that kind of environment, the only thing that is certain is change itself. We do not know exactly what to expect, but we look forward to reporting on those changes as they happen.

We wish all a happy and safe New Year!

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

santa1Happy Holiday season to our loyal readers of the Workplace Class Action Blog!

Our elves are busy at work this holiday season in wrapping up our start-of-the-year kick-off publication – Seyfarth Shaw’s Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report.

We anticipate going to press in early January, and launching the 2017 Report to our readers from our Blog.

This will be our Thirteenth Annual Report, and the biggest yet with analysis of over 1,300 class certification rulings from federal and state courts in 2016.  The Report will be available for download as an E-Book too.

The Report is the sole compendium in the U.S. dedicated exclusively to workplace class action litigation, and has become the “go to” research and resource guide for businesses and their corporate counsel facing complex litigation. 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.

The 2017 Report will analyze rulings from all state and federal courts – including private plaintiff class actions and collective actions, and government enforcement actions –  in the substantive areas of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, and the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005. It also features chapters on EEOC pattern or practice rulings, state law class certification decisions, and non-workplace class action rulings that impact employers. The Report also analyzes the leading class action settlements for 201 for employment discrimination, wage & hour, and ERISA class actions, as well as settlements of government enforcement actions, both with respect to monetary values and injunctive relief provisions.

Information on downloading your copy of the 2017 Report will be available on our blog in early January. Happy Holidays!

th9L3810CUSeyfarth Synopsis: Following a major victory for an airline-industry employer over the EEOC in a Title VII action regarding religious accommodations, the Court denied the EEOC’s motion for a new trial. The decision is a blueprint for employers on turning the tables on the Commission’s litigation tactics.

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After the EEOC brought an action alleging that airplane cabin cleaning company JetStream Ground Services, Inc. (“JetStream”) refused to hire five Muslim women due to their request to wear religious clothing, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado ruled in favor of JetStream following a 14-day trial.  After the EEOC moved for a new trial, in EEOC v JetStream Ground Services, Inc., Case No. 13-CV-02340 (D. Colo. Nov. 3, 2016), Judge Christine M. Arguello of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado denied the EEOC’s motion.

While this employer victory over the EEOC is encouraging, employers should nonetheless be cognizant of how employee requests to wear religious clothing at work can potentially affect their business in the Title VII litigation context.

Case Background

In a high-profile case that we have blogged about extensively here and here, five Muslim females who worked as cabin cleaners applied for and were denied cabin cleaning positions with JetStream after the company assumed the contract of the women’s former employer.  Id. at 1-2.  The women alleged that JetStream refused to hire them for discriminatory reasons after they requested to cover their heads with a hijab and wear long skirts for religious purposes.  They also alleged that JetStream retaliated against employees and applicants who wore hijabs for engaging in protected activity in seeking a religious accommodation for their clothing and/or for complaining about discrimination.

On summary judgment, the Court ruled that the former employees had met their burden to show that hijabs that were tucked into a shirt and secured to an employee’s head presented no safety problems, thus holding that accommodating such hijabs posed no undue hardship for JetStream.  Id. at 2.  However, the Court also found that JetStream had presented sufficient evidence to create a disputed issue of fact as to whether it would pose an undue hardship for JetStream to permit its cabin cleaners to wear long skirts while working.  After the parties disputed the type of expert testimony that would be allowed, the EEOC ultimately withdrew several claims while JetStream agreed not to use certain experts, thus leaving only the hijab accommodation claims for trial.

On April 29, 2016, after a fourteen-day jury trial, the jury found in favor of JetStream and against the EEOC.  Id. at 3.  Thereafter, under Rules 59 and 60, the EEOC brought a motion for a new trial, arguing it was justified for several reasons including: (1) evidence regarding safety hazards was confusing and distracting to the jury, and was designed to incite jurors’ fear and prejudice of Muslims; (2) new evidence was disclosed at trial; (3) JetStream’s counsel committed misconduct throughout the trial; (4) the Court erred in denying sanctions for the destruction of evidence; and (5) the Court erred in deciding not to allow the EEOC to use a juror questionnaire prior to trial and in denying the EEOC’s motion to strike two jurors for cause.

The Decision

The Court denied the EEOC’s motion for a new trial.  Addressing the relevant legal standard under Rule 59, the Court noted that only errors that have caused substantial harm to the losing party justify a new trial, and that the verdict must stand unless it is clearly, decidedly, or overwhelmingly against the weight of the evidence.  Id. at 5 (citations omitted).  Regarding Rule 60, the Court opined that relief under this rule is extraordinary and may only be granted in exceptional circumstances.

First, regarding the EEOC’s argument that the introduction of safety-related evidence at trial was confusing, distracting, and prejudicial, the Court held that the EEOC’s failure to object to such statements during the jury trial weighed heavily against granting it relief.  Id. at 16.  Next, the Court similarly rejected the EEOC’s argument that it was prejudiced by new evidence that was introduced at trial, again noting that the EEOC missed its opportunity to object or move to strike.  Id. at 19-20.

The EEOC also claimed it was entitled to a new trial due to the alleged misconduct of JetStream’s attorney, alleging that “defense counsel ‘intentionally exploited the jury’s potential stereotypes about ignorant immigrants,’” and that “defense counsel engaged in ‘personal attacks’ and ‘maligned’ Plaintiffs’ attorneys, in arguing that Plaintiffs would have been working for JetStream but that their attorneys prevented this from happening.”  Id. at 24-27.  The Court rejected these assertions, along with several other allegations of misconduct, again noting the EEOC failed to object or raise any of these issues at trial.  Id. at 28.

Addressing the EEOC’s argument that the Court erred by not sanctioning JetStream for destroying evidence that included a list of employee recommendations made by the company who previously employed the cabin cleaners, the Court found that the EEOC’s motion provided no evidence of bad faith destruction.  Id. at 30.  Finally, the EEOC noting that, “anti-Muslim bias has become increasingly pervasive in American society,” the EEOC argued that the Court erred in denying its motion for a juror questionnaire and failing to strike two jurors.  The Court rejected these arguments, noting that it expanded its customary voir dire procedures in lieu of issuing the questionnaire, and that various sentiments expressed by jurors did not warrant their striking.  Id. at 31-40.  Accordingly, the Court denied the EEOC’s motion for a new trial.

Implications For Employers

This ruling cements a major EEOC defeat.  While the employer was victorious at trial here, other businesses should still be cautioned that juries are unpredictable in EEOC lawsuits  Thus, employers should attempt to minimize exposure to Title VII liability through policies and practices that eradicate discrimination.  With a diverse workforce that includes employees from a wide range of religions, employers must be diligent when considering the reasonableness of any accommodation sought.  Given the recent aggressiveness of the EEOC, employers absolutely need to be proactive in creating and abiding by non-discriminatory policies, or risk ending up in costly litigation.

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

dice2Seyfarth Synopsis: A seemingly innocuous case filed by the EEOC on behalf of a single charging party against a casino operator highlights some of the risks of betting at the conciliation table.  Employers take note!

As its FY 2016 wound down, the EEOC filed suit against a casino operator – in the case of EEOC v. Greektown Casino, L.L.C., Case No. 2:16-CV-13540 (E.D. Mich.) – alleging that it failed to accommodate and then terminated a pit manager because of his alleged disability – stress anxiety disorder. Obviously, the casino not yet responded to the complaint, and it may well have excellent legal defenses. Yet, the Complaint shows the EEOC’s hand (or at least part of it) and provides an example of some of the important stakes in EEOC litigation.

Is The Commission Bluffing?

Employers sometimes assume that the EEOC is only in the business of suing large companies based upon allegations of class-wide mistreatment of large groups of employees.  It is true that the EEOC makes headlines filing pattern or practice cases against big companies, but the EEOC routinely files complaints on behalf of individual charging parties against lesser known businesses and often smaller companies. In fact, the EEOC often does so strategically – because it has determined that the underlying legal issue is more important than whether there is a big-name company, thousands of employees, or big dollars involved. As noted here and here, the EEOC’s recent challenge to a wellness program, and its recent attempt to pursue a claim for transgender discrimination, for example, were pursued on behalf of individual charging parties. Obviously, though, the legal issues were deemed important and, frankly, the press coverage was just as wide as that of any of the EEOC’s behemoth cases.

Also, more than a few cases are filed by the EEOC because it simply determines justice must be done and that the charging party might not have the resources to pursue it.  So, don’t assume during the conciliation process that the EEOC is just bluffing when it threatens to bring a case on behalf of one charging party.  It happens.

Know When To Fold Them?

With each reasonable case determination, comes an invitation to the conciliation (gaming) table. The conciliation process can be long, episodic, and frustrating.  Along the way, an employer must balance the various pros and cons associated with settling a case with the EEOC.  Certainty of outcome is almost always a factor, as is money, but, for some employers, the question is whether the game is lost the instant a suit is filed by the EEOC.  Consumer product and service companies, for example, are heavily invested in brand development and the relentless pursuit of brand loyalty.  So, each employer must ask itself what it will wager on whether the failure to reach compromise will result in damage to its brand or company name if the government publicly accuses it of discriminatory treatment of employees (i.e., fellow consumers). The frustrating part is that the allegations may be wildly misleading and eventually proven wrong, but no matter how frivolous the assertions may be, the reputational damage can be done on filing day.

Know When (Not) To Run?

None of this is to suggest that employers should bend to the will of the EEOC in a meritless individual or class case just because the EEOC says it might file suit.  The fact is that the EEOC is quite choosy and has limited resources.  As we reported here, the EEOC filed only 136 cases in its fiscal year ending September 30, 2016.  By contrast, as noted here and here, the EEOC routinely receives more than 80,000 charges of discrimination per year. In other words, the odds of the EEOC filing suit are actually quite low in any given case.

Plus, not all negative publicity hits are created equal.  What is the issue?  Is there an advantage to taking a stand? Do you have strong PR advisors?  Can you turn it on the government – David v. Goliath style?

And, perhaps most importantly, settling is not always a good bet.  EEOC conciliation agreements are confidential as a matter of law and EEOC policy – except where the employer agrees to some measure of publicity.  Employers should bet that the EEOC will request an “agreed” press release if there is any level of significance to the case, and should demand to see details of that card before deciding to take it.

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

thKCD34Y33By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: In an EEOC religious discrimination case, a federal court found that “Onionhead” was a religion for purposes of Title VII.   The court also found that the EEOC did not fail to meet its Title VII pre-suit duties when it added to its lawsuit seven additional claimants that it discovered during its investigation of charges brought by three former employees of the company that was accused of religious discrimination.

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While most religious discrimination claims brought by the EEOC involve mainstream religions, uncommon spiritual belief programs may still be afforded protection under Title VII so long as they meet certain legal requirements. In EEOC v. United Health Programs of America, Inc. and Cost Containment Group Inc., No. 14-CV-03673 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2016), the EEOC brought an action alleging an employer (“CCG”) discriminated against a group of former employees on the basis of religion by based on concepts known as “Onionhead” and “Harnessing Happiness.”  Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York granted the EEOC’s motion for partial summary judgment as to the discrete issue of whether these beliefs constituted a religion, while granting in part and denying in part CCG’s motion for summary judgment as to several other claims.  Most relevant, the Court denied CCG’s motion for summary judgment regarding the EEOC’s late addition of seven claimants that it discovered during its investigation of the three original charges of discrimination.

This ruling puts employers on notice that they must exercise extreme caution regarding spiritual beliefs in the workplace, even if the beliefs are not derived from a mainstream religion.  Further, it illustrates that employers have an uphill battle when challenging the EEOC’s pre-suit investigations as courts will not closely scrutinize such efforts.

Case Background

CCG is small wholesale company that provides discount medical plans.  Beginning around 2007, CCG executives determined that their corporate culture was deteriorating.  To fix this issue, CCG hired its CEO’s aunt, who had developed a program called Onionhead that CCG began to utilize in its workplace.  CCG described Onionhead as a multi-purpose conflict resolution tool, while plaintiffs characterized it as a system of religious beliefs and practices.  Although Onionhead was initially geared towards children, CCG expanded the program to apply it to adults, and it further became known as “Harnessing Happiness.”

The claimant employees alleged that Onionhead and Harnessing Happiness required to them do things like use candles instead of lights to prevent demons from entering the workplace; conduct chants and prayers in the workplace; and respond to emails relating to God, spirituality, demons, Satan, and divine destinies.  Id. at 7, 11-12.  The claimants alleged they were terminated either because they rejected Onionhead’s beliefs or because of their own non-Onionhead religious beliefs, while other employees who followed Onionhead were given less harsh discipline.  After three former employees filed charges of discrimination in 2011 and 2012, the EEOC issued a letter of determination on March 13, 2014.  After unsuccessful conciliation efforts, the EEOC filed suit on October 9, 2014 on behalf the three employees who filed charges of discrimination and an additional seven employees that it discovered during its investigation.  The EEOC subsequently moved for summary judgment as to the specific issue of whether Onionhead was a religion for purposes of Title VII.  CCG cross-moved for summary judgment as to several other claims involving religious discrimination.

The Decision

The Court granted the EEOC’s motion for partial summary as to the discrete issue of whether the Onionhead beliefs constituted a religion.  After discussing Title VII’s application to religious discrimination, the Court noted that the former employees asserted claims under a variety of theories, including disparate treatment, hostile work environment, failure to accommodate, and retaliation.  Id. at 15.  First, the Court sought to determine what constitutes a religious belief under Title VII.  Rejecting CCG’s argument that a narrow definition should apply, the Court opined that to determine whether a given set of beliefs constitutes a religion for purposes of Title VII, “courts frequently evaluate: (1) whether the beliefs are sincerely held and (2) whether they are, in [the believer’s] own scheme of things, religious.”  Id. at 23 (quoting Patrick v. LeFevre, 745 F.2d 153, 157 (2d Cir. 1984)).

Applying the Patrick framework here, the Court found that Onionhead qualified as a religion for purposes of Title VII.  Id. at 31-32.  Addressing the first prong, whether the beliefs were sincerely held, the Court noted that, “a reasonable jury could find that by inviting [the CEO’s aunt] into the workplace, paying her to meet and conduct workshops, authorizing her to speak to employees about matters related to their personal lives, disseminating Onionhead/Harnessing Happiness material and directing employees to attend group and individual meetings with [his aunt], [the CEO] and his upper management held sincere beliefs in Onionhead and Harnessing Happiness.”  Id. at 35-36.  As to the second prong, which contemplates whether the nature of the beliefs qualifies as religious, the Court concluded that the beliefs were religious within the meaning of Title VII.  Id. at 36.  In reaching this conclusion, the Court discussed the emails about God, spirituality, Satan, divine destinies, etc.; noted how the CEO’s aunt referred to herself as a “spiritual advisor”; cited claimants’ testimony that they were told to pray in the workplace; and quoted numerous Onionhead publications.  Id. at 36-41.  Accordingly, the Court found that Onionhead was a religion for purposes of Title VII.  Id. at 43.

Next, the Court addressed CCG’s motion for summary judgment as to the individual claims asserted by claimants, which alleged that the EEOC failed to fulfill its Title VII pre-suit investigation, reasonable cause determination, and conciliation requirements for several claimants.  Id. at 43-45.  Noting that, “[c]ourts have permitted the EEOC to add new claimants identified during discovery even when the EEOC is asserting claims under Section 706 of Title VII,” the Court held that given “the circumstances present in the instant case, the EEOC was not precluded from identifying new claimants (whose claims were effectively identical to the claims of the pre-existing claimants) after filing this action.”  Id. at 46-47.  In doing so, the Court rejected CCG’s reliance on EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited Inc., 679 F.3d 657, 674 (8th Cir. 2012), and distinguished on the grounds that “[t]he EEOC’s attempt in CRST to add 67 claimants to an EEOC action filed two years earlier and naming a single individual is a far cry from the situation presented in this action, where the EEOC’s investigation undisputedly encompassed seven of the ten claimants and the additional three claimants’ allegations arise out of the same alleged course of conduct, in the same office, by the same individuals, and during a time period already covered by the charges in the initial complaint.”  Id. at 48-49.  Thus, citing the narrow scope of review courts are permitted when reviewing the sufficiency of EEOC investigations, the Court denied CCG’s request to dismiss the late-discovered claimants.

The Court also discussed at great length CCG’s motion for summary judgment as to multiple reverse discrimination claims.  The Court denied CCG’s motion for summary judgment as to eight claimants’ reverse discrimination claims and all claimants’ hostile work environment claims premised on reverse religious discrimination.  Id. at 101.  Further, the Court denied CCG’s motion for summary judgment with respect to one claimant’s disparate treatment and retaliation claims premised on her Catholicism, but granted CCG’s motion for summary judgment with respect to the same claimant’s hostile work environment and failure to accommodate claims.  Id. at 102.  Finally, the Court granted CCG’s motion for summary judgment against all other claimants on their claims that they suffered discrimination based on claimants’ religious beliefs or lack thereof.  Id. at 102.

Implications For Employers

Whether or not this blog post has caused you to consider a conversion to Onionhead, the implications from this ruling are crucial for employers in two regards.  First, the finding that Onionhead is a religion should put employers on notice that when considering beliefs claimed by an employee and programs implemented by an employer, courts can and will utilize an expansive definition of what constitutes a “religious belief” for purposes of Title VII discrimination litigation.  Second, employers can expect the EEOC to use this ruling to aggressively seek to expand its lawsuits beyond the original complaining employees and try to include any similarly aggrieved employees it uncovers during investigations.  Accordingly, the twofold impact of this ruling should alert employers to expect more aggressive religious discrimination litigation from the EEOC, who will also seek to expand the size of its lawsuits given that its investigations are subject to limited judicial scrutiny.

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