seal.pngBy Christopher DeGroff and Brian Wong

On the heels of its early 2011 decision imposing fee sanctions against the EEOC for continuing to litigate a case after it should have known it could not prove its claims, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico in EEOC v. TriCore Reference Laboratories, Case No. 09-CV-956 (D. N.Mex. Oct. 27, 2011), issued an order setting reasonable attorneys’ fees in the amount of $140,571.62 against the EEOC. This fee award joins a growing line of cases reflecting judicial intolerance for hard-line litigation tactics by the EEOC (see here and here).

In EEOC v. TriCore, the EEOC unsuccessfully claimed that TriCore failed to reasonably accommodate an employee’s disability and ultimately terminated her based on her disability in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Earlier this spring, Judge John Conway granted TriCore’s motion for summary judgment, finding the EEOC had offered nothing to refute TriCore’s evidence demonstrating it provided reasonable accommodations to the employee and that her poor performance was a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for her termination.

TriCore then filed a motion for an “Order Deeming the EEOC’s Claims as Frivolous, Unreasonable, or Without Foundation.” Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412 (1978), that a defendant may recover attorneys’ fees “[w]here a claim is initially viable but later becomes frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless,” Judge Conway granted TriCore’s motion. The Court faulted the EEOC’s continued litigation of the case despite its having provided responses to requests for admission that gutted the failure to accommodate claim, and despite having received correspondence from the employer that outlined the insufficiencies of its claims.

TriCore subsequently filed a Motion for Attorneys Fees, supporting the reasonableness of its requested amount with affidavits and time records. Surprisingly, the EEOC chose not to dispute the reasonableness of the requested attorneys’ fees, instead opting to renew its opposition to the Court’s prior finding that its case had been frivolous. Noting that the EEOC’s arguments had already been considered and rejected, the Court granted TriCore’s application for attorneys’ fees to the tune of $140,571.62. On October 27, 2011, the Court stayed execution of the fee award pending an appeal by the EEOC.

EEOC v. TriCore serves as a reminder to employers that efforts to be reasonable when faced with aggressive EEOC litigation tactics can pay dividends in the end. After this case and a growing number of similar decisions, employers now have more ammunition with which to challenge unreasonable and groundless claims by the EEOC.