Wipeout.jpgBy Christopher DeGroff and Brian Wong

Joining a wave of similar decisions across the country, Judge Edward F. Shea of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington this week held that EEOC actions seeking relief for a pattern or practice of unlawful employment actions under § 707 must adhere to the 300-day limitations period set forth by § 706. In EEOC v. Global Horizons, Inc., et al., No. CV-11-3045-EFS (E.D. Wash. July 27, 2012), the Court imposed this critical limitation on EEOC pattern or practice claims and barred the EEOC from seeking relief for employment practices occurring more than 300 days before the filing of the underlying administrative charge. Moreover, Judge Shea rejected the EEOC’s far-reaching attempt to apply joint employer status among the various defendants with wholesale vicarious liability. 

The ruling ought to be required reading by all corporate counsel.

Facts Of The Case

In EEOC v. Global Horizons, Inc., the EEOC brought an action alleging that defendants engaged in a pattern or practice of unlawful employment actions by subjecting Thai workers to disparate treatment, harassment, retaliation, and constructive discharge. The EEOC alleged that a manpower agency, Global Horizons, Inc., recruited and transported Thai individuals to Washington as temporary nonimmigrant workers under the federal H-2A program. According to the EEOC, Global, with the help of two agricultural companies (the “Grower Defendants”) with which it contracted to provide H-2A workers, subjected the Thai workers to unlawful harassment, threats of deportation, uninhabitable housing, inadequate pay, workplace harassment, and other unlawful treatment. Though the lion’s share of alleged unlawful conduct was committed by Global, the EEOC sought to hold the Grower Defendants equally liable as joint employers of the temporary H-2A workers.

The Grower Defendants filed motions to dismiss the EEOC’s complaint arguing, among other things, that the EEOC improperly confused joint employer status with joint employer liability, and that a 300-day statute of limitations should apply to all of the EEOC’s claims, including its pattern or practice claims.

The Court’s Ruling

After considering the Grower Defendants’ motions to dismiss, the Court made two key findings. First, on the issue of joint employer liability, Judge Shea significantly curtailed the Grower Defendants’ liability for Global’s acts, reminding the EEOC that “a joint employer relationship does not equate to joint liability.” Id. at 8. Specifically, the Court declined to hold the Grower Defendants liable for any conduct Global committed that did not relate to the actual orchard work performed by the H-2A workers. Id. at 8-9. Upon analyzing the EEOC’s allegations in light of this limitation, the Court dismissed the EEOC’s disparate treatment claims as to both Grower Defendants, dismissed the retaliation claim as to one Grower Defendant, and declined to dismiss the EEOC’s orchard-related hostile work environment claims.

As to the EEOC’s attempt to circumvent the 300-day limitations period, Judge Shea acknowledged district courts have split on the question of “whether the EEOC may seek relief for aggrieved persons pertaining to unlawful employment practices occurring more than 300 days before the filing of the administrative charge.” Id. at 13. Nonetheless, Judge Shea concluded after reviewing the plain language of the statute in question that “§ 2000e-5(e)(1)’s 300-day statute of limitation is a ‘procedure’ that applies to an action brought under § 2000e-6(e).” Id. at 14. In applying this holding to the EEOC’s claims, the Court noted retaliation claims (and retaliation pattern or practice claims) are founded upon a discrete adverse act that must have occurred within 300 days of the limitation period. Id. Similarly, the Court noted hostile work environment claims (and related pattern or practice claims), are actionable so long as the final of a series of separate acts occurred within the 300-day limitation period. Id.

Implications For Employers

The Court’s ruling in EEOC v. Global Horizons, Inc. punctuates a trend of judicial intolerance for EEOC attempts to litigate broad pattern or practice claims without adherence to any statute of limitations. With the number of employer-friendly decisions on this issue growing (see examples of our prior coverage of such decisions here and here, employers facing EEOC litigation should use these cases to send over-reaching EEOC pattern or practice claims to the bottom.

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