appleBy Gerald L. Maatman Jr. and Howard M. Wexler

We have previously blogged about the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Mach Mining v. EEOC, No. 13-1019 (U.S. April 29, 2015) (most recently here and here).  As we predicted, the true impact of Mach Mining will not be known until federal courts around the country start to weigh in on its utility as a dispositive defense vis-à-vis the Commission’s conciliation obligation.

In an effort to take a mulligan on one of its biggest defeats, the EEOC recently attempted to have the 2009 judgment rendered against it in EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc. – in which the District Court held (and the Eighth Circuit affirmed) that that EEOC was barred from seeking relief on behalf of 67 individuals because the EEOC “wholly abandoned its statutory duties”  – vacated based on Mach Mining pursuant to F.R.C.P. Rule 60(b)(6).  The EEOC’s motion is all the more interesting given that the U.S. Supreme Court recently granted CRST’s petition for a writ of certiorari as to the Eighth Circuit’s decision reversing the $4.5 million attorney fee award rendered against the EEOC. In this key decision, Judge Linda R. Reade of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa denied the EEOC’s motion to vacate the 2009 decision based on Mach Mining on the grounds it failed to establish the requisite “extraordinary circumstances” needed to warrant such extraordinary relief.

Case Background

On September 27, 2007, the EEOC filed its lawsuit “to correct [CRST’s] unlawful employment practices on the basis of sex, and to provide appropriate relief to . . . Starke and a class of similarly situated female employees of [CRST] who were adversely affected by such practices.” Id. On August 13, 2009, the Court found that EEOC was barred from seeking relief on behalf of 67 individuals because the EEOC “wholly abandoned its statutory duties” by: (1) failing to investigate those individuals’ claims until after the EEOC filed the Complaint; (2) not including the 67 individuals as members in the Letter of Determination’s “class” until after the EEOC filed the Complaint; (3) failing to make a reasonable cause determination as to the specific allegations of any of the 67 individuals; and (4) not attempting to conciliate the specific allegations of the 67 individuals prior to filing the Complaint. Id at 2.

While the parties continued to litigate the fee award rendered against the EEOC, the EEOC did not seek U.S. Supreme Court review of the Eighth Circuit’s decision regarding pre-suit requirements.  Shortly after Mach Mining was decided, the EEOC filed a motion for relief pursuant to Rule 60(b)(6) seeking to vacate the Court’s 2009 decision; the Commission asserted that Mach Mining “clarified the EEOC’s pre-suit obligations” and that the Court’s decision dismissing the 67 allegedly aggrieved individuals was contrary to Mach Mining. Id. at 3.

The Court’s Decision

The Court noted that relief under Rule 60 is “an extraordinary remedy for exceptional circumstances” and that “a change in the law that would have governed the dispute, had the dispute not already been decided, is not by itself an extraordinary circumstance warranting Rule 60(b) relief from a final judgment.” Id. 

The Court rejected the EEOC’s argument that Mach Mining “changed the governing law and established the incorrectness of the dismissal of the case.” Id. at 4. First, the Court noted that the issue in Mach Mining was to what extent a Court may inquire into the EEOC’s conciliation process. The so called “class definition” – which was at issue in EEOC v. CRST –  was not a contested issue in Mach Mining. Id. at 4-5. Therefore, the Court held that, “Mach Mining is inapplicable to the instant action, insofar as it concerns inquiry into the specifics of the EEOC’s conciliation process.”

In language that all employers should be sure to keep handy, the Court determined that, “it is the Court’s opinion that Mach Mining’s statement that the appropriate remedy is to order the EEOC to undertake the mandated efforts to obtain voluntary compliance does not necessarily prevent a Court from dismissing a case where no investigation occurs” as “the issue in Mach Mining was limited to the sufficiency of the EEOC’s conciliation process and the permissible level of judicial inquiry into that process. Mach Mining did not address the appropriate remedy when the EEOC fails to engage in any investigation of claims prior to the conciliation process.” Id. at 5.

In closing, the Court held that “to grant relief in the instant action would open the floodgates for countless other decisions that were issued based on laws that may have changed in the interim. This scenario is the basis for the importance of the finality of judgments and the need for limiting relief under Rule 60(b) to truly extraordinary cases, cases where the denial of relief offends justice.” Id.

Implications for Employers

This decision yet again demonstrates the possible wide-ranging effects of Mach Mining. In this case, the Court rejected the EEOC’s request to vacate a nearly six year old judgment, and as the Court noted, avoided “open[ing] the floodgates for countless other decisions that were issued” prior to Mach Mining.  Furthermore, the Court’s decision is important in that it makes clear what was [and was not] decided by Mach Mining, thus dealing a blow to the EEOC’s attempt to use Mach Mining to its advantage in cases involving not just the EEOC’s conciliation efforts, but its underlying investigation.  Stay tuned as we continue monitor the impact of Mach Mining as we enter 2016!

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