Seyfarth Synopsis: On the governmental enforcement front, the change-over from the Obama Administration to the Trump Administration had little to no impact on reducing the pace of litigation filings and settlements in 2018 at least insofar as EEOC litigation was concerned. At the same time, while the number of lawsuits filed went up, the aggregate recoveries – measured by the top 10 settlements in government enforcement litigation – went down.
To the extent the Trump Administration aims to change those dynamics, its agency appointees at the DOL either were not nominated in time to influence their respective agencies or were not put into place until mid to late 2018. Insofar as the EEOC is concerned, the Trump nominees for the Chair, two Commissioners, and the general counsel were never voted upon by the Senate in 2018. The result was a delay in changes to agency policies and priorities. In this respect, fundamental changes to patterns in government enforcement litigation are more akin to changing the direction of a large sea-going cargo tanker than a small motor boat. Change is inevitable, but it takes time. Thus, the impact of change on governmental litigation enforcement trends is not likely to be felt until well into 2019.
As a result, the EEOC’s lawsuit count increased again in 2018. It filed 199 merits lawsuits, and 20 subpoena enforcement actions. By continuing to follow through on the systemic enforcement and litigation strategy plan it announced in April of 2006 (that centers on the government bringing more systemic discrimination cases affecting large numbers of workers), the EEOC filed more cases as well as more systemic lawsuits. As 2018 demonstrated, the EEOC’s prosecution of pattern or practice lawsuits remained an agency-wide priority backed up by the numbers. Many of the high-level investigations started in the last three years mushroomed into the institution of EEOC pattern or practice lawsuits in 2018.
By comparison to previous years, 2018 was a big one for the EEOC in terms of the number of lawsuits filed. Total merits filings were up more than 100% as compared to 2016. In fact, the EEOC filed more lawsuits in the month of September of 2018 than it did in all of the months of 2016 combined.
This past year also marked the second year of the EEOC’s new Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”), which is intended to guide enforcement activity for 2017 to 2021. Although the new SEP outlines the same six enforcement priorities as in prior years, few people familiar with how the agency pursues its objectives expect that the EEOC will continue to enforce those priorities in the same way under the Trump Administration. The six enforcement priorities include: (1) the elimination of systemic barriers in recruitment and hiring; (2) protection of immigrant, migrant, and other vulnerable workers; (3) addressing emerging and developing issues; (4) enforcing equal pay laws; (5) preserving access to the legal system; and (6) preventing harassment through systemic enforcement and targeted outreach.
Each of these priorities can be interpreted in multiple ways. For example, the EEOC has consistently focused on the protection of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people as one of the most important emerging and developing issues in the workplace. The EEOC’s efforts in this area have resulted in a body of case law in many jurisdictions over the past several years that now holds that discrimination against transgender individuals, or on the basis of sexual orientation, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII. However, the Department of Justice under President Trump has recently disagreed with that interpretation. This may signal that this is one area that will shift in 2019 as high-level personnel changes are made within the EEOC.
The EEOC also focused in the past year on employers’ utilization of social media and the use of algorithms and information available on the internet to screen job applicants. Recent comments by the EEOC’s staff indicate that this may be one of the “barriers to recruitment and hiring” that the agency will focus on in 2019 and beyond. Along the same lines, the EEOC has shown an increased willingness to bring ADEA lawsuits against employers – especially in the hospitality industry – that it believes are discriminating against hiring applicants aged 40 and over.
The EEOC also recently issued new guidance impacting two of its enforcement priorities, including preserving access to the legal system (i.e., through increased enforcement of the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII, the ADA, and the ADEA) and preventing harassment in the workplace. Among other things, the retaliation guidance expands the definition of “adverse action” to include one-off incidents and warnings, as well as anything that reasonably could be likely to deter protected activity. With respect to preventing harassment, the new guidance clarifies the EEOC’s thinking about what constitutes a hostile work environment and the defenses available to employers when that hostile work environment is the result of supervisors’ misconduct. Although important developments in their own right, the real impact of these new guidelines may not be clear until employers see how they are interpreted by the EEOC in active litigation situations. Like the priorities themselves, that will be impacted by whatever new policies and directives are put in place by the new Trump appointees.
Furthermore, the EEOC has focused on #MeToo issues with more intensity than ever before. The most striking trend of all is the substantial increase in sex-based discrimination filings, as 74% of the EEOC’s Title VII filings this past year targeted sex-based discrimination. By comparison, in 2017, sex-based discrimination accounted for 65% of Title VII filings. Of the 2018 sex discrimination filings, 41 filings included claims of sexual harassment. The total number of sexual harassment filings was notably more than 2017, where sexual harassment claims accounted for 33 filings.
It also appears that the EEOC is finally executing on its oft-stated intention to increase enforcement under the Equal Pay Act (“EPA”). The EEOC filed 11 EPA lawsuits in 2018. This is a significant increase over prior years (six EPA lawsuits were filed in 2016, five in 2015, and two in 2014). However, its enforcement efforts in this area may have suffered a setback when the changes the EEOC planned to make to the EEO-1 reporting requirements were put on hold in 2018. It was widely speculated that the new reporting requirements would have assisted the EEOC in bringing more claims under the EPA. Under the leadership of the new Administration, the Office of Management and Budget, pursuant to its authority under the Paperwork Reduction Act, stayed implementation of the EEOC’s new EEO-1 regulations this past year.
The Commission’s 2018 Performance Accountability Report announced that its systemic litigation program continues to be a focus for the EEOC. The EEOC labels a case “systemic” if it “has a broad impact on an industry, company, or geographic area.” The EEOC’s FY 2018 report outlined the EEOC’s activity from October 1, 2017 to September 30, 2018. It showed the following:
The EEOC’s field offices resolved 409 systemic investigations and collected $30 million in remedies (compared to 329 systemic investigations and $38.4 million in 2017). The figures for 2018 constitute a significant increase in the number of investigations over the previous year, but a marked decrease in the amounts for monetary relief for systemic cases.
The EEOC also issued cause determinations finding discrimination in 204 systemic investigations (compared to 167 in 2017 and 113 in 2016). Hence, the EEOC resolve more systemic investigations compared to 2017, and made considerably more cause determinations that may well result in an increase in systemic lawsuits filed in the coming year.
The EEOC secured approximately $505 million in total relief in 2018 in litigation, mediations, and pre-litigation investigations. This tracks closely the total relief figure of $484 million for 2017. It also includes $354 million obtained through mediation, conciliation, and settlement for victims of discrimination in private, state and local government, and federal workplaces. That number was marginally down from 2017, which saw $355.6 million in such recoveries.
Litigation recoveries, on the other hand, were relatively flat as compared to the past few years, hitting only $53.5 million in 2018. This was slightly higher than in 2017 and 2016, which saw the EEOC obtain $42.4 million and $52.2 million respectively, and lower than in 2015 when the EEOC obtained $65.3 million in litigation recoveries.
The EEOC filed 199 merits lawsuits in 2018. This is up from 184 lawsuits in 2017, and more than double the 86 merits lawsuits that were filed in 2016. Of the lawsuits, 117 were on behalf of individuals, 45 were non-systemic suits with multiple victims, and the other 37 were systemic claims. The EEOC also filed 20 subpoena enforcement actions in 2018. Hence, the EEOC in the first and second years of the Trump Administration was far more active in filing lawsuits than in the final year of the Obama Administration.
In FY 2018, the EEOC received 76,418 charges, as compared to 99,109 charges in 2017. Furthermore, the EEOC decreased its charge inventory by 19.5%, to 49,607 charges. This is the lowest level of charge inventory in 10 years and represents a significant reduction compared to FY 2017, when the EEOC reduced its outstanding charges by 16.2%.
In contrast to the EEOC, the DOL’s agenda in 2018 reflected that its new Republican-appointed decision-makers had been in place for the better part of the past year. That being said, however, the DOL’s Wage & Hour Division (“WHD”) still did not have a Senate-confirmed Administrator nominated by the Trump Administration. Despite the lack of a confirmed leader (or perhaps because of it), the WHD continued its aggressive enforcement activities, setting a new record of $304 million in back wages recovered during 2018, which represents an increase of more than $30 million over the previous year.
At the same time, however, the DOL increased its focus on compliance assistance, holding more than 3,600 outreach events, which also represented a record high for the agency. The DOL also returned to its historical practice (abandoned during the Obama Administration) of issuing opinion letters, which allows employers and employees alike to seek formal guidance from the WHD on some of the most challenging wage & hour issues. In 2018, the WHD issued nearly 30 such letters, which addressed tipped employees, the salary basis test, volunteer status, travel time obligation, and pay required by the FMLA, among a number of other topics.
This past year also brought the return of another program – the WHD’s supervision of wage & hour back pay awards following an employer’s self-audit or similar practice. Early in the year, the DOL announced the Payroll Audit Independent Determination (“PAID”) program. The PAID program allows employers to identify potential violations, the affected employees, the relevant time frame, and the amounts due, and then present that information to the WHD, in addition to some additional certifications regarding compliance. Upon review by the DOL, the back wages are paid, and, if the employee accepts the back wages, the employee waives his or her right to a private right of action. That waiver, however, is limited to the scope of the issues and timeframe. Initially launched as a six-month pilot program, the PAID program was extended for an additional six months, thereby keeping this option open for employers well into 2019.
Not to be outdone, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) also undertook an ambitious agenda in 2018. It reconsidered well-settled NLRB principles on joint employer rules and representative elections, entertained the possibility of extending the protections of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) to college athletes, and litigated novel claims seeking to hold franchisors liable for the personnel decisions of franchisees. By the end of the year, however, the Trump Administration’s appointees began to roll-back NLRB precedents and positions that had been espoused during the Obama Administration, such as a reversal of the expansive view of joint employer liability, allowing more deference to employer workplace rules, and eliminating protections for obscene, vulgar, and inappropriate activity under the NLRA.
Implications For Employers
Despite predictions to the contrary, the EEOC has continued its “business as usual” aggressive litigation despite two years under the Trump administration. Changes are, however, afoot. The Senate has still not confirmed two Trump-nominated Republican Commissioners, including one who is set to become Chair of the Commission, or Trump’s pick to be the EEOC’s General Counsel. (One of those nominated to be a Commissioner, Daniel Gade, recently withdrew from consideration on December 21, 2018, citing the delays in the nomination process as the reason.) Eventually, the impact of the injection of new decision makers will be felt, perhaps dramatically. That makes it especially important for employers to monitor these developments in 2019. Of course, we will have our ear to the ground, and look forward to sharing our thoughts and prognostications with our readers throughout the new year!