Seyfarth Synopsis: A federal district court in Maryland recently denied in part an employer’s motion to dismiss a race discrimination action brought on behalf of African-born security guards by the EEOC, and instead granted the EEOC’s motion to stay so that the Commission could amend its deficient pre-suit letters of determination that were the subject of the employer’s motion to dismiss.
This is an important ruling for employers facing systemic EEOC actions, particularly regarding the strategy to challenge whether the EEOC has satisfied its Title VII pre-suit obligations.
In EEOC v. MVM, Inc., No. 17-CV-2864, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81268 (D. Md. May 14, 2018), the EEOC alleged that MVM subjected a group of African-born employees to national origin discrimination, consisting of disparate treatment, a hostile work environment, and unlawful retaliation. Id. at *1. In October 2013, MVM hired a new project manager to oversee 400 security personnel, approximately half of whom were “African or foreign-born blacks.” Id. at *2. Within weeks of his hire, the project manager allegedly began complaining that there were “too many Africans” on the contract, that he was not comfortable working with foreigners, that he “couldn’t understand their accents.” Id.
During the project manager’s tenure, MVM also allegedly engaged in a variety of negative actions against African and foreign-born black security personnel, including denying them leave, forcing them to work on their scheduled days off, forcing them to work extra hours beyond their scheduled shifts, assigning them to undesirable posts, subjecting them to heightened scrutiny, disciplining them more harshly than called for by its discipline policy, intimidating and threatening them with termination, and denying them union representation so as to facilitate the imposition of discipline, suspensions, and termination without cause. Id. at *2-3.
Nine terminated employees filed charges with the EEOC. After the EEOC investigated the Charging Parties’ complaints, it issued Letters of Determination (“LODs”) on November 3, 2016, finding that there was reasonable cause to believe MVM had violated Title VII by discriminating against the Charging Parties through “unequal, terms, conditions, and privileges of … employment because of … national origin,” and/or had retaliated against the Charging Parties for engaging in protected activity. Id.
Following unsuccessful conciliation, on September 27, 2017, the EEOC brought suit on behalf of the Charging Parties and a group of allegedly aggrieved individuals. As amended, the complaint alleged five counts of violations of Title VII, consisting of: (I) a pattern or practice of discriminatory treatment based on national origin; (II) disparate terms and conditions of employment based on national origin; (III) a hostile work environment based on national origin; (IV) discharge and constructive discharge based on national origin; and (V) unlawful retaliation.
In its motion to dismiss, MVM primarily argued that the amended complaint contained claims of disparate treatment on behalf of a group of aggrieved individuals, including claims of discriminatory termination and constructive discharge, which went beyond the scope of the underlying LODs. MVM also argued: (i) discrimination based on “perceived” national origin was not cognizable; (ii) that certain allegations in the amended complaint were based on incidents that do not rise to the level of “adverse employment actions”; (iii) that the EEOC failed to state a plausible claim for constructive discharge; and (iv) that the EEOC failed to state a plausible claim of retaliation arising from the termination of one employee. Id. at *10. In its motion to stay, the EEOC requested that the Court stay the proceedings for 45 days to afford it an opportunity to amend its LODs and engage in conciliation efforts based on the amended LODs.
The Court’s Decision
The Court granted the EEOC’s motion to stay, and denied most of MVM’s motion to dismiss. First, in addressing the EEOC’s motion to stay, the Court noted that in the absence of a stay, either the Court would have to engage in detailed, fact-based analysis of the adequacy of the LODs, or the EEOC would dismiss and re-file the case. Id. at *14. In support of staying the case, the Court noted that its conclusion was supported by Mach Mining v. EEOC, 135 S. Ct. 645 (2015). Specifically, the Court held that “MVM’s rigid position that the EEOC may have only one opportunity to provide notice of charges through its LOD is inconsistent with … Mach Mining … to allow additional opportunities to provide notice of charges and engage in conciliation, precisely the steps that the EEOC seeks to accomplish through its proposed stay.” Id. at *13. Accordingly, the Court granted the EEOC’s motion to stay.
Next, having granted the motion to stay in order to permit the EEOC to amend the LODs, the Court held that MVM’s request for dismissal of claims that were not specifically identified in the LODs, such as discriminatory termination, was now moot. Id. at *16. Turning to MVM’s motion to dismiss claims alleging discrimination on the basis of “perceived” national origin, the Court likewise denied MVM’s motion, holding that “[t]o conclude otherwise would be to allow discrimination to go unchecked where the perpetrator is too ignorant to understand the difference between individuals from different countries or regions, and to provide causes of action against only those knowledgeable enough to target only those from the specific country against which they harbor discriminatory animus.” Id. at *17, 21.
The Court next addressed MVM’s motion to dismiss any disparate treatment claims based on allegedly discriminatory actions other than suspension or termination. MVM asserted that any freestanding claims of disparate treatment in other specific matters, such as denying leave to African employees, forcing them to work on their scheduled days off, or assigning them to undesirable posts, necessarily failed because those actions did not constitute adverse employment actions for purposes of Title VII. The EEOC argued that it was making no such discrete claims, but rather, that the various discriminatory acts short of suspension and termination that were referenced in the amended complaint were offered collectively to establish a hostile work environment. Id. at *25. The Court rejected the EEOC’s argument and granted MVM’s motion to dismiss the nation origin disparate treatment claim, noting that hostile work environment, discriminatory termination, and retaliation claims were separately plead in other counts. The Court also denied MVM’s motion to dismiss constructive discharge and retaliation claims, holding that the EEOC plausibly stated claims for both. Accordingly, the Court denied in part and granted in part MVM’s motion to dismiss, and granted the EEOC’s motion to stay.
Implications For Employers
Since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the Mach Mining case in 2015, whether the EEOC has fulfilled its pre-suit obligations under Title VII has become a major area of focus for employers EEOC lawsuits. Here, although the Court generally acknowledged that the LODs were deficient, it avoided closely scrutinizing these pre-suit letters and allowed the EEOC to amend any deficiencies. Accordingly, while employers should not let one district court’s opinion deter them from challenging whether the EEOC fulfilled its pre-suit obligations, they should be cognizant that some courts will be more forgiving in allowing the EEOC to revisit failures to meet these obligations, as opposed to outright dismissing EEOC lawsuits.