Seyfarth Synopsis: In a recent ruling out of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, the Court denied approval of a consent decree agreed upon by the EEOC and a defendant, taking issue with the decree’s requirement that the defendant take “all affirmative steps” to make sure it does not discriminate in the future. The case is EEOC v. Pirtek USA LLC, No. 19-CV-1853, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 227698 (M.D. Fla. Dec. 1, 2020), and it is a must-read for employers and employment law practitioners alike.
On March 16, 2020, the EEOC filed its First Amended Complaint against Defendant Pirtek USA LLC for alleged violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Specifically, the EEOC alleged that Pirtek terminated one of its employees prior to his anticipated return to work following an illness and hospitalization based on his perceived disability. On June 5, 2020, the parties filed a Joint Motion for the Approval and Entry of Consent Decree.
The proposed Consent Decree had a three-year term and provided that Defendant would pay the aggrieved employee $85,000. The Consent Decree further provided injunctive relief mandating that Defendant would not engage in discriminatory practices; would adopt and distribute a policy regarding discrimination on the basis of disability; would provide management and human resources personnel training on discrimination of the basis of disability; would submit to compliance, monitoring, and reporting requirements; would post the notice appended to the Consent Decree in its workplace; and would give the aggrieved employee a neutral job reference.
The Court’s Opinion
The Court began its analysis of the proposed Consent Decree by reiterating that any order involving injunctive relief must: “1) state the reasons why it is issued; 2) state its terms specifically; and 3) describe in reasonable detail the act or acts restrained or required.” Id. at *2. The Court then focused on the Consent Decree’s requirement that Defendant would not engage in discriminatory practices during the term of the Decree. The Consent Decree specifically provided that “[Defendant] shall take all affirmative steps to ensure that it does not subject its employees to discrimination based on disability or perceived disability.” Id. at *3.
Citing several prior opinions from with the Eleventh and Fifth Circuits holding that “obey the law” provisions – or provisions that require a party to merely follow the law – were too vague to be enforced, the Court determined that the proposed Consent Decree suffered the same deficiency. The Court held that the directive that Defendant take “all affirmative steps” to ensure it does not discriminate on the basis of disability provided no specificity as to what steps were required and no command capable of enforcement.
Accordingly, the Court ruled that the proposed Consent Decree could not be approved as presented.
Though brief, the Court’s decision in Pirtek is particularly notable, as EEOC consent decrees are rarely denied approval. Moreover, the opinion provides employers ammunition to combat similarly vague provisions proposed by the EEOC in the future. While the “obey the law” provisions generally seem innocuous at first, they can serve as landmines for employers down the road, as they are, like the Court in Pirtek noted, generally unclear as to what kinds of activities or incidents would run afoul of the provision (e.g., another employee merely filing a charge of discrimination could potentially cause the EEOC to claim that an employer violated the terms of the provision). This opinion can be cited by employers, especially in the Eleventh Circuit, to push back against “obey the law” provisions proposed by the EEOC in consent decrees.