By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In an ADEA action brought by the EEOC alleging that the New Mexico Department of Corrections failed to promote correctional officers over the age of 40, a federal district court in New Mexico denied the employer’s motion to dismiss but ordered the EEOC to file a supplemental pleading identifying previously unnamed aggrieved parties.

For employers facing EEOC age discrimination claims, this ruling provides insight into how to attack allegations relative to unidentified aggrieved individuals and to flush out the true size and scope of an EEOC systemic lawsuit.

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In EEOC v. State of New Mexico, Dep’t of Corrections, No. 15-CV-879, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 198770 (D.N.Mex. Dec. 4, 2017), the EEOC alleged that from January 2009 to at least December 2014, the New Mexico Department of Corrections (“NMDC”) denied employment opportunities to three specific workers and a group of unidentified aggrieved individuals aged 40 and over on the basis of their age.  The NMDC moved to dismiss with respect to the unidentified aggrieved individuals, arguing those claims were insufficiently plead, and further, that the EEOC failed to provide sufficient notice about any additional aggrieved individuals during the pre-filing conciliation period. 

The EEOC moved to convert the motion to dismiss to a motion for summary judgment after the NMDC attached to its motion exhibits relating to the EEOC’s investigation and conciliation.  Judge Kenneth J. Gonzales of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico denied both motions, but  ordered the EEOC to file a supplemental pleading listing the names of each aggrieved party.

Employers can use this decision in ADEA litigation to argue that the EEOC should identify any unnamed aggrieved individuals at the outset of litigation. In this respect, it is a key ruling for employers.

Case Background

The EEOC alleged that the NMDC failed to promote three correctional officers to various positions at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility because they were over the age of 40.  The former warden allegedly told the officers that “while [two Claimants] were qualified for the [position], he selected a 31-year-old candidate because he was looking for someone with ‘longevity.’”  Id. at *2.  The EEOC also alleged that the warden: (1) made many of the decisions to deny employment opportunities to older workers; (2) used ageist comments about longevity, preferring younger workers, and not promoting employees near retirement; and (3) instilled a culture of age discrimination that continued to be applied by the NMDC.  As such, the EEOC sought an injunction requiring policy changes and money damages for any individual adversely impacted by the discrimination.

Arguing that the EEOC failed to provide sufficient notice about any additional aggrieved individuals during the pre-filing conciliation period, the NMDC moved to dismiss the amended complaint.  In support of its motion, NMDC sought to offer several exhibits, including: (1) requests for information propounded on the NMDC by the EEOC; (2) the EEOC’s letter to the NMDC’s employees soliciting information or claims; and (3) letters and e-mails between the parties relating to EEOC’s efforts at conference, conciliation, and investigation.  Id. at *5.  The EEOC argued that if the Court was willing to entertain evidence regarding pre-filing communications, then the motion to dismiss should be converted to a motion for summary judgment.  Id. at *3.

The Court’s Decision

The Court denied the NMDC’s motion to dismiss, denied the EEOC’s motion to convert the convert the motion to dismiss to a motion for summary judgment, and ordered the EEOC to file a supplemental pleading listing the names of each aggrieved party involved in this lawsuit.  First, the Court addressed the NMDC’s argument that the exhibits were “implicitly referenced” in the EEOC’s allegations regarding its pre-filing investigation.  Id. at *5.  The Court rejected this argument, opining that “implicit, subtle, or passing references to extraneous evidence” did not justify their inclusion.  Id.  As such, the Court excluded the NMDC’s exhibits, and therefore denied the EEOC’s motion to convert.

Second, the Court addressed the NMDC’s argument that the Court should consider the lack of actual pre-litigation notice as part of the notice pleading inquiry, including its knowledge about the potential number of claimants, facilities, and wrongdoers.  Id. at *6.  According to the NMDC, any potential recovery should be limited to the claimants the EEOC actually knew about when conciliation concluded in September of 2013.  The Court held that it would allow the parties to amend their pending summary judgment motions to supplement any evidence and arguments regarding actual pre-litigation notice and timeliness, but that “a motion to dismiss typically is not the correct vehicle for determining whether a claim is barred based on when it arises.”  Id. at *7.

Third, the Court addressed the NMDC’s argument that the EEOC failed to meet the pleading standards defined in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009), and Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007).  The Court opined that there is no binding case law addressing how much information the EEOC’s complaint must provide about unidentified parties.  Id. at *9.  Further, it instructed that courts are more permissive about the class-type allegations where the complaint is very specific about the charging parties.  Id. at *10 (citations omitted).  Applying these principles, the Court held that the complaint stated a plausible claim for relief on behalf of the unidentified aggrieved individuals since it described the types of discrimination at issue (age); the group of workers (NMDC workers over the age of 40); and the duration of the discriminatory conduct (since 2009 and ongoing).  Id.  Accordingly, the Court denied the NMDC’s motion to dismiss.

Finally, at oral argument, the EEOC offered to file an amended complaint to satisfy the party plaintiff rule, if the Court found it applied.  Id. at *12.  Instructing that the ADEA incorporated the requirements of 29 U.S.C. § 216(c), the Court ordered the EEOC to identify each aggrieved individual in the record by filing a supplemental pleading.  Id. at *11-12.  The Court also permitted the NMDC the option to file a response, but advised that the Court would prefer to address additional substantive arguments through the summary judgment proceedings.  Accordingly, the Court denied the NMDC’s motion to dismiss, denied the EEOC’s motion to convert the convert the motion to dismiss to a motion for summary judgment, and ordered the EEOC to file a supplemental pleading listing the names of each allegedly aggrieved worker on whose behalf the EEOC sought recovery.

Implications For Employers

In its Strategic Enforcement Plan for Fiscal Years 2017-2021, the EEOC identified eliminating barriers in recruitment and hiring as one of its six priorities (as we blogged about here).  One of the prime areas where the EEOC has been targeting employers involves age discrimination.  This litigation should put employers on notice that promotional and hiring decisions will be closely scrutinized by the EEOC.

Further, although the Court did not reach the issue of whether the EEOC fulfilled its conciliation obligations with respect to the unnamed group of allegedly aggrieved individuals, this employer’s attack of the EEOC’s failure to fulfill its pre-suit obligations under Title VII resulted in the Court ordering the Commission to file a supplemental pleading identifying such individuals.  Although the employer’s motion to dismiss was denied, employers can cite to this ruling in ADEA litigation when arguing that the EEOC should “put its cards on the table” and disclose who exactly is part of the lawsuit.

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

 

Happy Holiday season to our loyal readers of the Workplace Class Action Blog!

Our elves are busy at work this holiday season in wrapping up our start-of-the-year kick-off publication – Seyfarth Shaw’s Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report.

We anticipate going to press in early January, and launching the 2018 Report to our readers from our Blog.

This will be our Fourteenth Annual Report, and the biggest yet with analysis of over 1,350 class certification rulings from federal and state courts in 2017.  The Report will be available for download as an E-Book too.

The Report is the sole compendium in the U.S. dedicated exclusively to workplace class action litigation, and has become the “go to” research and resource guide for businesses and their corporate counsel facing complex litigation. We were again honored this year with a review of our Report by Employment Practices Liability Consultant Magazine (“EPLiC”). Here is what EPLiC said: “The Report is a definitive ‘must-have’ for legal research and in-depth analysis of employment-related class action litigation.  Anyone who practices in this area, whether as an attorney, a business executive, a risk manager, an underwriter, a consultant, or a broker cannot afford to be without it. Importantly, the Report is the only publication of its kind in the United States. It is the sole compendium that analyzes workplace class actions from ‘A to Z.’”  You can read more about the review here.  Furthermore, EPLiC recognized our Report as the “state-of-the-art word” on workplace class action litigation.

The 2018 Report will analyze rulings from all state and federal courts – including private plaintiff class actions and collective actions, and government enforcement actions –  in the substantive areas of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, and the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005. It also features chapters on EEOC pattern or practice rulings, state law class certification decisions, and non-workplace class action rulings that impact employers. The Report also analyzes the leading class action settlements for 2017 for employment discrimination, wage & hour, and ERISA class actions, as well as settlements of government enforcement actions, both with respect to monetary values and injunctive relief provisions.

Information on downloading your copy of the 2018 Report will be available on our blog in early January. Happy Holidays!

By Matthew J. GagnonChristopher J. DeGroff, and Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: With uncertain times and profound changes anticipated for the EEOC, employers anxiously await what enforcement litigation the EEOC has in store. Although 2016 showed a marked decline in filings, fiscal year 2017 shows a return to vigorous enforcement filings, with a substantial number of filings in the waning days of the fiscal year.

Employers are living in uncertain times. The impact of a Trump Administration and the EEOC’s new Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) for fiscal years 2017-2021 are still working themselves out in the FY 2017 filing trends. Nonetheless, one trend has reemerged: a vigorous number of EEOC case filings. It looks like the anemic numbers of FY 2016 were just a bump in the road, as FY 2017 has revealed an increase in total filings, even eclipsing the numbers from FY 2015 and 2014. (Compare here to here and here.) This year, the EEOC filed 202 actions, 184 merits lawsuits and 18 subpoena enforcement actions.

The September filing frenzy is still an EEOC way-of-life, as this past month yet again holds the title for most filings compared to any other month. At the time of publication, 88 lawsuits were filed in September, including 21 in the last two days alone. In fact, the EEOC filed more cases in the last three months of FY 2017 than it did during all of FY 2016. The total number of filings for the remaining months remains consistent with prior years, including a noticeable ramp up period boasting double digit numbers through the summer.

Filings out of the Chicago district office were back up in FY 2017 after an uncharacteristic decline to just 7 total filings in 2016. This year, Chicago hit 21 filings, an enormous increase from last year. This is closer to the total number of Chicago filings in FY 2015 and 2014 (26 in each year). The Los Angeles district office also increased its filings, hitting a high of 22, a substantial jump compared to previous years and the most of any district office in FY 2017. On the other end of the spectrum, the Phoenix district office has seen a notable drop, with only 7 filings compared to 17 in FY 2016.

New SEP, Same Focus

Every year we analyze what the EEOC says about its substantive focus as a way to understand what conduct it is targeting. This year, Title VII takes center stage. Although Title VII has consistently been the largest category of filings, last year showed a dip in the percentage of filings alleging Title VII violations, at only 41%. Nonetheless, this year Title VII has regained its previous proportion, accounting for 53% of all filings. This is on par with FY 2015 and 2014, showing once again that FY 2016 seems to have been an outlier.

Although the 2017-2021 SEP outlined the same general enforcement priorities as the previous version of the SEP (covering FY 2012 to 2016), the new SEP added “backlash discrimination” towards individuals of Muslin/Sikh/Arab/Middle Eastern/South Asian communities as an additional focus. One would expect this focus might increase the number of Title VII claims alleging either religious, racial, or national origin discrimination. However, those filings stayed relatively even, and were even a bit down from previous years. Religious, national origin, and race discrimination claims made up 42% of all Title VII claims, compared to 50% in 2016 and 46% in 2015.

Uncertainty For Equal Pay Claims

With a new administration came a new Acting Chair for the EEOC. President Trump appointed Victoria Lipnic as Acting Chair on January 25, 2017. Employers expected the EEOC’s new leader to steer the EEOC’s agenda in a different direction. Some believed Lipnic was foreshadowing future trends when she made it clear at her first public appearance – hosted by none other than Seyfarth Shaw – that she is “very interested in equal pay issues.” (See here.) And indeed, we have seen a slight uptick in the number of EPA claims filed in FY 2017. In FY 2017, The EEOC filed 11 EPA claims, compared to 6 in 2016, 5 in 2015, and 2 in 2014.

However, on June 28, 2017, President Trump tapped Janet Dhillon as Chair of the EEOC. Dhillon would come to the EEOC with extensive experience in a big law firm and as the lead lawyer at three large corporations, US Airways, J.C. Penney, and Burlington Stores Inc. Although it is too early to know how she could change the direction of the agency if confirmed, it is entirely possible that she could back away from previous goals to pursue equal pay claims more aggressively.

The Trump Administration has also made other moves that may indicate a change in direction with respect to equal pay initiatives. On February 1, 2016, the EEOC proposed changes to the EEO-1 report that would require all employers with more than 100 employees to submit more detailed compensation data to the EEOC, including information regarding total compensation and total hours worked by race, ethnicity, and gender. This was a change from the previous EEO-1 report, which only required employers to report on employee gender and ethnicity in relation to job titles. However, on August 29, 2017, the new EEO-1 reporting requirements were indefinitely suspended. We will have to wait and see whether the slight uptick in EPA claims in FY 2017 was a one-year anomaly.

Implications For Employers

The changes brought by the Trump Administration are still in the process of working themselves down into the rank and file of many federal agencies. The EEOC is no exception. Despite all of the unrest and uncertainty about where the EEOC may be headed, the FY 2017 filing trends largely show a return to previous years, albeit with a slight uptick in EPA claims. Certainly, changes in top personnel will have an impact on how the EEOC pursues its enforcement agenda. Exactly what that impact will be remains to be seen.

Loyal readers know that this post is merely a prelude to our full analysis of trends and developments affecting EEOC litigation, which will be published at the end of the calendar year. Stay tuned for our continued analysis of FY 2017 EEOC filings, and our thoughts about what employers should keep an eye on as we enter FY 2018. We look forward to keeping you in the loop all year long!

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

EEOCBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.Christopher J. DeGroff, and Matthew J. Gagnon

Seyfarth Synopsis: Reviewing the EEOC’s case filings during the first half of the Commission’s fiscal year may already reveal some surprising trends, most notably a sharp uptick in the total number of case filings – up 75% from the same point last year – and a corresponding increase in systemic cases.

March 31 was the mid-point of the EEOC’s fiscal year. Given the significant changes brought to the federal government by the Trump Administration, we sharpened our pencils and examined the EEOC’s case filings during the first half of FY 2017 and compared those filings to the first half of FY 2016 to see what changes, if any, the new administration has wrought.

As the chart below reveals, the number of filings is up significantly from the same point in time in FY 2016. From October 1, 2016 through March 31, 2017, there were 35 new cases filed. During the same time period in the prior year, there were only 20. That means that filings are up a whopping 75% for the first half of the year.

Total EEOC Case Filings - 2017 Midyear Review

In addition to a larger number of total filings, we have also seen a rise in systemic cases. These cases – defined as having a significant impact on the development of the law or promoting compliance across a large organization, community, or industry – have long been a strategic priority for the agency. As we blogged about here, Acting Chair of the EEOC, Victoria Lipnic, reaffirmed the agency’s commitment to systemic cases when she spoke to Seyfarth Shaw and our invited guests in February of this year. However, systemic cases have garnered negative attention from Republican members of Congress, so it was not clear whether the EEOC would shift direction under the new Republican leadership.

Although we cannot know for certain which cases the EEOC considers “systemic,” based on our review of EEOC press releases and the substance of the EEOC filings, we have identified a significant uptick in systemic case filings in the first half of FY 2017 compared to the same period in FY 2016. Last year there were only four filings during this time period, compared with nine this year. If this trend holds through to the end of the year, then this could turn out to be a banner year for systemic case filings.

Systemic EEOC Case Filings - 2017 Midyear Review

Finally, we analyzed the particular discrimination theories and statutes that the EEOC is pursuing. That analysis can be seen in the chart below. Not surprisingly, Title VII and Americans with Disabilities Act cases lead the way, with 17 and 14 cases filed respectively. Year after year, those types of cases lead the pack. The number of ADEA cases is slightly higher than this time last year, but is still generally consistent with prior years and does not yet reflect a significant change in direction for the EEOC.

As Seyfarth’s Pay Equity Issues & Insights Blog noted here, Chairperson Lipnic has stated that she is very interested in pay equity issues. However, that level of interest is not yet translating into any increase in Equal Pay Act (“EPA”) cases on a year over year basis. The first half of FY 2017 saw only one EPA case filed, the same as during the same period last year.

EEOC Case Filings By Statute - 2017 Midyear Review

We will continue to monitor trends and developments in EEOC litigation throughout the year so that we can once again bring you our annual comprehensive end-of-year examination of trends affecting EEOC litigation (see here for last year’s version). As always, we look forward to bringing that analysis to you, our loyal readers!

middle-district-of-florida-stampBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: Following an employer’s reduction-in-force that ultimately led to an ADEA collective action after several employees over 50 years old were terminated, a federal district court in Florida recently granted a motion to conditionally certify a collective action of employees who worked at the employer’s Tampa, Florida location, but denied a motion to certify a nationwide collective action.

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When employers decide to undertake a reduction-in-force (“RIF”), one of the major pitfalls from a legal perspective involves mass terminations of employees over 40 years of age, leading to potential exposure under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”).  After multi-discipline design firm RS&H, Inc. (“RS&H”) terminated 23 employees during an RIF, a 53 year old terminated employee brought suit against RS&H under the ADEA, noting that five of the seven employees terminated at the Tampa location where he worked were over 50 years old.  In Jones v. RS&H, Inc. , No. 8:17-CV-54-T-24, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 60088 (M.D. Fla. Apr. 20, 2017), after Plaintiff moved for conditional certification of a nationwide collective action of employees over 40 who were terminated in the RIF, Judge Susan C. Bucklew of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida granted the motion for conditional certification for employees who worked at the Tampa location, but denied conditional certification of a nationwide collective action.

While the Court’s grant of conditional certification should serve as a cautionary tale for employers who are considering mass layoffs that may include a significant proportion of employees over 40, the Court’s denial of conditional certification of a nationwide collective action provides insight as to how employers facing ADEA multi-party actions can attempt to minimize exposure.

Case Background

Plaintiff worked for RS&H from 1991 through 2015.  When RS&H terminated Plaintiff, it stated that his termination was part of an RIF.   Id. at *1-2.  After RS&H terminated 23 employees nationwide, including seven from its Tampa location, Plaintiff filed an EEOC charge alleging age discrimination.  Plaintiff stated that he had more work than the projected staffing requirement, and thus there was no reason for his termination.  He further alleged that RS&H rarely allowed non-officers to work until they retired.  In addition, RS&H was alleged to have hired young employees, and then terminated older employees once the young employees were trained.  According to Plaintiff, one RS&H supervisor commented just prior to the RIF that he had been informed that RS&H was looking to reduce staff, specifically older personnel.  Plaintiff further alleged that RS&H agents often said, “young people are our future.”  Id. at *2.

After being issued a notice of suit rights letter and thereafter bringing suit, Plaintiff sought to conditionally certify a nationwide collective action of former employees who were terminated from October 28, 2014 through August 24, 2015 (i.e., within 300 days prior to Plaintiff’s filing of his EEOC charge) and who were at least 40 years old at the time of their termination.  Two opt-in Plaintiffs who also worked at the Tampa location and were terminated during the 2015 RIF filed affidavits in support of Plaintiff’s allegations of age discrimination.  In opposition to the motion for conditional certification, RS&H argued that: (1) Plaintiff was not a proper representative because his ADEA claim was time-barred; (2) Plaintiff’s EEOC charge did not provide sufficient notice of claims from the proposed collective action; and (3) the scope of the proposed collective action was too large.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted in part and denied in part Plaintiff’s motion for conditional certification.  First, in support of its argument that conditional certification was not warranted since Plaintiff was not a proper representative, RS&H argued that Plaintiff’s suit was untimely because he filed his suit 95 days after the EEOC issued its notice of suit rights.  Id. at *5-6.  The Court rejected this argument, citing evidence submitted by Plaintiff’s counsel illustrating that it did not receive the notice of suit rights letter until over two weeks after it was stamped.

Next,  RS&H argued that conditional certification was not warranted for the proposed nationwide collective action because Plaintiff’s EEOC charge did not give adequate notice that such claims were being asserted.  Id. at *7.  After examining Plaintiff’s EEOC charge, which indicated that “[o]n the day of my termination 5 of the 7 [Tampa, Florida] employees let go were over 50 and had at least 10 years with the company,” the Court found that Plaintiff’s EEOC charge could not be read to give notice that he was asserting claims on behalf of a nationwide group of employees.  The Court agreed with RS&H that, at best, Plaintiff’s charge put RS&H and the EEOC on notice that Plaintiff may be pursuing age discrimination claims on behalf of himself and the four other employees terminated on the same day at his Tampa work location.  Id. at *9-10.  In addition, the Court found that the decision-maker who terminated Plaintiff and the two opt-ins was never involved in a decision to terminate any employee outside of the Tampa location.  Accordingly, the Court declined to certify a nationwide collective action.

The Court then explained that to conditionally certify a collective action, (i) there must be other employees who desire to opt-in; and (ii) those employees must be similarly-situated to Plaintiff.  Given that two former employees had already opted-in, and that three of the five individuals that are over 50 and were terminated during the June 2015 RIF wanted to pursue ADEA claims, the Court found that the first element was met.  Regarding the similarly-situated element, the Court noted that while Plaintiff attempted to assert a company-wide pattern or practice of age discrimination claim, he did not show a sufficient factual basis on which a reasonable inference could be made that RS&H had a pattern or practice of discriminating against all employees at all locations based on their age.  Id. at *15-16.  Plaintiff offered no evidence that any employees outside of Tampa were interested in joining the lawsuit, nor did they identify any decision-makers outside of Tampa who allegedly discriminated on the basis of age during the RIF.  The Court further opined that the evidence that Plaintiff submitted could only support his contention of a pattern or practice of age discrimination within the Tampa location.  As such, the Court denied Plaintiff’s motion to conditionally certify a nationwide collective action of former employees over 40 who were terminated during the June 2015 RIF, but conditionally certified a collective action consisting of the five individuals that were terminated from the Tampa location.

Implications For Employers

While the Court’s grant of conditional certification should serve as an eye opener for employers considering RIFs that may include several employees over 40, the Court’s refusal to certify a nationwide collective action provides guidance for employers as to how to minimize potential RIF exposure.  Here, the Court noted that Plaintiff’s EEOC charge did not identify any aggrieved individuals outside of the Tampa location, nor did it identify anyone involved in the termination decision-making process outside of Tampa.  Employers facing motions for nationwide conditional certification in ADEA collective actions following RIFs should closely review the plaintiff’s EEOC charge to assess the sufficiency of nationwide allegations.  Given the potentially substantial consequences of RIFs involving older workers, the best practice for employers would be to contact their employment law counsel before engaging in this process.

250px-US-CourtOfAppeals-8thCircuit-SealBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Michael L. DeMarino

Seyfarth Synopsis:  After thirty-three former employees who signed release agreements requiring individual arbitration of ADEA claims collectively sued their employer for age discrimination, the employer moved to compel individual arbitration. The District Court denied the company’s motion. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed because it found that the ADEA did not contain a “contrary congressional command” overriding the FAA’s mandate to enforce arbitration agreements.

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Case Background

In McLeod, et. al. v. General Mills, Inc., No. 15-3540, 2017 WL 1363797 (8th Cir. Apr. 14, 2017), thirty-three former employees of General Mills (the “Company”) were offered severance packages and signed release agreements in which they agreed to individually arbitrate claims relating to their termination—including, specifically,  ADEA claims. Id. at *1. Despite agreeing to individual arbitration, the employees collectively sued the Company in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, alleging various ADEA violations. The Company moved to compel arbitration, and the District Court denied that motion.  Id.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed the District Court’s denial of the Company’s motion to compel arbitration. The Eighth Circuit held that Section 626(f) of the ADEA does not contain a contrary congressional command to override the Federal Arbitration Act’s (“FAA”) mandate to enforce arbitration agreements. Id. at *2-3. At the core of this holding was the Eighth Circuit’s decision that the “right” to a jury trial and the “right” to proceed in a collective action, are not substantive ADEA rights. Id

This decision is important because it addresses the fundamental question of whether employment agreements that require individual arbitration run afoul of the ADEA and its provisions authorizing plaintiffs to sue collectively.

Unlike other decisions involving the clash of arbitration agreements and 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), the Eighth Circuit’s decision in McLeod resolves the tension between, on the one hand the FAA’s mandate to enforce arbitration agreements, and on the other hand, the ADEA’s requirement in  § 626(f) that a party must prove in a “court of competent jurisdiction” that the waiver of ADEA rights was “knowing and voluntary.”

Because the Eighth Circuit determined that the “waiver” of rights in Section 626(f) refers only to the waiver of substantive ADEA rights and because the “right” to a jury trial and the “right” to proceed in a collective action are not “rights” under § 626(f), it held that there was no “waiver” for purposes of  § 626(f).

Case Background

In 2012, the Company terminated 850 of its employees. These employees were offered severance packages in exchange for signing release agreements. Id at *1. The release agreements required the employees to release the Company from all claims related to their termination, including claims under the ADEA. Id.

The release agreements also contained a dispute resolution provision that required the employees to submit any claim covered by the release agreement to arbitration on an individual basis. Id.

Thirty-three of the employees who were terminated in 2012 sued the Company in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. Specifically, the employees sought a declaratory judgment that the releases were not “knowing and voluntary,” as required by 29 U.S.C. § 626(f)(1). The employees also asserted collective and individual claims for alleged ADEA violations. Id.

The Company moved to compel arbitration of the employees’ claims, and the District Court denied that motion. Id. The Company subsequently appealed to the Eighth Circuit.

The Eighth Circuit’s Decision

On appeal, the employees argued that ADEA §  626(f) contains the necessary “contrary congressional command” to render their release agreements invalid. Id. at *2. Specifically, the employees relied on two related sections of the ADEA to argue that compelling arbitration results is an effective waiver of their substantive rights under the ADEA. Id. These two sections are § 626(f)(1) and § 626(f)(3).

Section 626(f)(1) of the ADEA prohibits the waiver of any ADEA right or claim — unless the waiver is “knowing and voluntary.” 29 U.S.C. § 626(f)(1). Whereas, § 626(f)(3) describes how to prove a “waiver,” requiring that the “the party asserting the validity of a waiver shall have the burden of proving in a court of competent jurisdiction that a waiver was knowing and voluntary . . . .”  Id (citing 29 U.S.C. § 626(f)(3)). (emphasis added). 

The employees argued that, by moving to compel arbitration of their claims, the Company was asserting the validity of a waiver — by forcing them to forego their “right” to a jury trial and their “right” to proceed by class action. Id.

The Eighth Circuit rejected this argument. “In § 626(f),” it explained, ‘“waiver’ refers narrowly to waiver of substantive ADEA rights or claims — not, as the former employees argued, the ‘right’ to a jury trial or the ‘right’ to proceed in a class action.” Id. (emphasis in original).

In reaching that decision, the Eighth Circuit cited 14 Penn Plaza LLC v. Pyett, 556 U.S. 247 (2009). In that case, the Supreme Court interpreted § 626(f)(1)’s references to “‘right[s] or claim[s]’ to mean substantive rights to be free from age discrimination, not procedural ‘rights’ to pursue age discrimination claims in court.” Id. Noting that Penn Plaza controls, the Eighth Circuit explained that the “specific ‘rights’ the former employees cite are not ‘rights’ under § 626(f)(1).” Id. The Eighth Circuit therefor decided that no “rights or claims” are “waived” by agreeing to bring claims in arbitration. Id.

The Eighth Circuit also rejected the employees’ argument that § 626(b), by incorporating 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), gives them a “right” to bring a collective action. Id. at 3. Before making short shrift of this argument, the Eighth Circuit noted that the ADEA borrows the procedural collective action mechanism from § 216(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). Section 626(b) incorporates § 216(b), which allows an employee to sue on behalf of himself “and other employees similarly situated.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Thus, the Eighth Circuit explained that § 626(b) expressly allows employees to bring collective actions for age discrimination. McLeod, 2017 WL 1363797 at *3.

Although the Eighth Circuit acknowledged that the ADEA expressly authorizes employees to sue collectively, it held that § 626(b) does not create a non-waivable, substantive right to do so. Citing its decision in Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc., 702 F.3d 1050, 1052 (8th Cir. 2013), the Eighth Circuit first explained that “[s]tanding alone, § 216(b) does not create a non-waivable substantive right; rather, its class-action authorization can be waived by a valid arbitration agreement.” Id.  The Eighth Circuit then found no convincing reason why § 626(b)’s incorporation of § 216(b) would “elevate the procedural class-action authorization to a substantive § 626(f)(1) ‘right.’” Id.

Ultimately, the Eighth Circuit concluded that the ADEA does not provide a “contrary congressional command” overriding the FAA’s mandate to enforce agreements to arbitrate ADEA claims, and that the District Court should have granted the Company’s motion to compel arbitration. Id.

Next, the employees argued that an arbitration panel could not grant them their declaratory relief — i.e., decide the question of whether their waiver of substantive ADEA rights was “knowing and voluntary.” Id. at 4. Specifically, the employees argued that this question can only be resolved in court because of § 626(f)(1)’s mandatory language “shall have the burden of proving in a court of competent jurisdiction.” Id. (emphasis added).

The Eighth Circuit declined to decide this issue, finding, instead, that the question was not justiciable. Id. Because the Company had not yet asserted that any of the employees had in fact waived their ADEA claims, and because the employees were seeking declaratory relief only “if and to the extent” the Company asserted that defense, the Eighth Circuit concluded that the employees’ declaratory relief was hypothetical. Id. “No Article III case or controversy arises,” it explained, “when plaintiffs seek a ‘declaratory judgment as to the validity of a defense’ that a defendant ‘may or may not, raise.’” Id. Accordingly, the Eighth Circuit held that the District Court did not have jurisdiction to decide whether the employees’ waiver was “knowing and voluntary.” Id.

Implication For Employers

This decision is important for employers, but less so for the reasons one might imagine. The reality is that this decision does little to alter the ADEA judicial landscape. More than two decades ago the Supreme Court held in Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp. that ADEA claims could be subjected to compulsory, individual arbitration, even though collective actions are permitted under the ADEA by the identical statutory language as the FLSA. See Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U.S. 20, 32 (1991). While Gilmer did not specifically touch on the interplay between § 626(f) and the FAA, it is a bit surprising that a discussion of Gilmer is altogether absent from the Eighth Circuit’s decision.

One take away is that employers can remain confident that provisions requiring individual arbitration of ADEA claims will not result in a prohibited waiver of an employees’ rights under the ADEA.

This decision also sheds light on an important strategy consideration. Employers that assert waiver as a defense may find themselves litigating the validity of that waiver (i.e., whether the waiver was knowing and voluntary) in court — even though the employees agreed to arbitrate their claims. Hence, employers will likely need to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of defending an ADEA violation on the merits in arbitration versus adopting a waiver defense in court.

santa1Happy Holiday season to our loyal readers of the Workplace Class Action Blog!

Our elves are busy at work this holiday season in wrapping up our start-of-the-year kick-off publication – Seyfarth Shaw’s Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report.

We anticipate going to press in early January, and launching the 2017 Report to our readers from our Blog.

This will be our Thirteenth Annual Report, and the biggest yet with analysis of over 1,300 class certification rulings from federal and state courts in 2016.  The Report will be available for download as an E-Book too.

The Report is the sole compendium in the U.S. dedicated exclusively to workplace class action litigation, and has become the “go to” research and resource guide for businesses and their corporate counsel facing complex litigation. We were again honored this year with a review of our Report by Employment Practices Liability Consultant Magazine (“EPLiC”). Here is what EPLiC said: “The Report is a ‘must-have’ for legal research and in-depth analysis of employment-related class action litigation.  Anyone who practices in this area, whether as an attorney, risk manager, underwriter, or broker cannot afford to be without it. Importantly, the Report is the only publication of its kind in the United States.”  You can read more about the review here.  Furthermore, EPLiC recognized our Report as the “state-of-the-art word” on workplace class action litigation.

The 2017 Report will analyze rulings from all state and federal courts – including private plaintiff class actions and collective actions, and government enforcement actions –  in the substantive areas of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, and the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005. It also features chapters on EEOC pattern or practice rulings, state law class certification decisions, and non-workplace class action rulings that impact employers. The Report also analyzes the leading class action settlements for 201 for employment discrimination, wage & hour, and ERISA class actions, as well as settlements of government enforcement actions, both with respect to monetary values and injunctive relief provisions.

Information on downloading your copy of the 2017 Report will be available on our blog in early January. Happy Holidays!

thYGT7TBUXBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Reanne Swafford-Harris

Seyfarth Synopsis: Relief sought in age discrimination litigation is limited to the specific remedies described in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”).

In a ruling on April 26, 2016, in K.H., et al., v. Secretary of The Department of Homeland Security, Case No. 15-CV-02740 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 26, 2016), Judge Jon S. Tigar of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued an order granting in part and denying in part the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Motion to Dismiss and/or Strike portions of Plaintiffs’ First Amended Complaint.  Judge Tigar dismissed with prejudice any claim of relief sought by Plaintiffs that was not a specific remedy under the ADEA.

Case Background

In 2015, the named Plaintiff, K.H., a 47-year-old Federal U.S. Air Marshal (“FAM”), filed the complaint on behalf of himself and an estimated 300 other air marshals, alleging that air marshals over the age of 40 were disproportionately affected when the Transportation Security Administration (“TSA”), an agency within the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), closed six field offices with the highest percentage of older FAMs.  The Plaintiffs were given as little as 10 days to decide whether they would accept job reassignments, some of which were cross-country.

The Plaintiffs’ complaint – brought for relief on a collective action basis – included claims for all relief possible under the ADEA, including lost wages, a bid for “any relief that this court deems appropriate,” and two paragraphs describing the disruption the closures had on the FAMs’ families and their health.  The DHS asked the Court to dismiss the suit on the basis that it was brought on a theory of disparate impact, which is not recognized under the ADEA.  It further asserted that K.H.’s damages claim failed because monetary relief under the ADEA is limited to lost wages and K.H. did not lose his job as a result of the field office closures.

The Ruling

In his ruling, Judge Tigar dismissed the lost wages claims of four air marshals without prejudice, and dismissed the FAMs’ bid for “any relief that this court deems appropriate” with prejudice.  Id. at 8. Judge Tigar determined that the air marshals could only pursue relief for: legal costs, reinstatement, promotion, and unpaid minimum wages or overtime, as those are the specific remedies described in the ADEA.  Accordingly, the Court also dismissed with prejudice, Plaintiffs’ compensatory damages claim for alleged age discrimination.  At the same time, however, Judge Tigar declined to dismiss the two paragraphs of the complaint describing the negative effects of the closures, agreeing with Plaintiffs that these paragraphs were not requesting compensation for the alleged effects.

Implications For Employers

Lay-offs and personnel decisions impacting large groups of workers are “custom-made” situations where collective actions may be brought by plaintiffs under the ADEA. The ruling in K.H., et al. is a win for employers in that it limits the claims of relief that plaintiffs may seek from employers in age discrimination suits.

#16-3130 2016 WCAR Tickit Icon R!By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Our 2016 Workplace Class Action Report is now available. At 853 pages, it analyzes 1,314 rulings and is our biggest and best Report ever.

Click here to order your copy in eBook format. Click here to download Chapter 1 on the 2015 Executive Summary/Key Trends. Our annual webinar on the Report is now set for February 1, 2015, and a link to register for the webinar is here.

The Report is the sole compendium in the U.S. dedicated exclusively to workplace class action litigation, and has become the “go to” research and resource guide for businesses and their corporate counsel facing complex litigation. We were humbled and honored by the review of our Report by Employment Practices Liability Consultant Magazine (“EPLiC”) – the review is here. EPLi said: “The Report is the singular, definitive source of information, research, and in-depth analysis on employment-related class action litigation. Practitioners and corporate counsel should not be without it on their desk, since the Report is the sole compendium of its kind in the United States.”

The 2016 Report analyzes rulings from all state and federal courts – including private plaintiff class actions and collective actions, and government enforcement actions –  in the substantive areas of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, and the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005. It also features chapters on EEOC pattern or practice rulings, state law class certification decisions, and non-workplace class action rulings that impact employers. The Report also analyzes the leading class action settlements for 2015 for employment discrimination, wage & hour, and ERISA class actions, as well as settlements of government enforcement actions, both with respect to monetary values and injunctive relief provisions.

We hope our loyal blog readers will enjoy it!

Executive Summary

Workplace class action litigation often poses unique “bet-the-company” risks for employers. An adverse judgment in a class action has the potential to bankrupt a business. Likewise, the on-going defense of a class action can drain corporate resources long before the case reaches a decision point. Companies that do business in multiple states are also susceptible to “copy-cat” class actions, whereby plaintiffs’ lawyers create a domino effect of litigation filings that challenge corporate policies and practices. Hence, workplace class actions can adversely impact a corporation’s market share, jeopardize or end the careers of senior management, and cost millions of dollars in defense fees. For these reasons, workplace class action litigation risks are at the top of the list of problems that keep business leaders up at night.

Skilled plaintiffs’ class action lawyers and governmental enforcement litigators are not making that challenge any easier. They are continuing to develop new theories and approaches to prosecuting complex employment litigation. In turn, the events of the past year in the workplace class action world demonstrate that the array of litigation issues facing businesses are continuing to accelerate while also undergoing significant change. Governmental enforcement litigation pursued by the U.S. Equal Employment Commission (“EEOC”) and the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) also manifests an aggressive “push-the-envelope” agenda of two activist agencies, with regulatory oversight of workplace issues continuing as a high priority. The combination of these factors are challenging businesses to integrate their litigation and risk mitigation strategies to navigate these exposures. These challenges are especially acute for businesses in the context of complex workplace litigation.

Key Trends Of 2015

An overview of workplace class action litigation developments in 2015 reveals five key trends.

First, class action dynamics increasingly have been shaped and influenced by recent rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court. Over the past several years, the Supreme Court has accepted supreme courtmore cases for review – and issued more rulings than ever before that have impacted the prosecution and defense of class actions and government enforcement litigation. The past year continued that trend, with several key decisions on complex employment litigation issues, and more cases accepted for review that are posed for rulings in 2016. While the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Roberts is often thought to be pro-business, the array of its key rulings impacting class action workplace issues is anything but one-dimensional. Some decisions may be viewed as hostile to the expansive use of Rule 23, while others are hospitable and strengthen the availability of class actions. Further, the Supreme Court has declined several opportunities to impose more restraints on class actions, and by often deciding cases on narrow grounds, it has left many gaps to be filled in by and thereby fueled disagreements arising amongst lower federal courts. Suffice it to say, the range of rulings form a complex tapestry that precludes an overarching generalization that the Supreme Court is pro-business or pro-worker on class actions.

Second, the monetary value of employment-related class action settlements reached an all-time high in 2015. The plaintiffs’ employment class action bar and governmental enforcement litigators successfully translated their case filings into larger class-wide settlements at unprecedented levels. The top ten settlements in various employment-related categories totaled $2.48 billion over the past year as compared to $1.87 billion in 2014. As success in the class action litigation context often serves to encourage pursuit of more class actions by “copy-cat” litigants, 2016 is apt to see the filing of more class actions than in previous years.

#15-3099 2015 WCAR Infographics - Aggregate Settlement Amounts R

Third, federal and state courts issued more favorable class certification rulings for the plaintiffs’ bar in 2015 than in past years. In addition to converting their class certification rulings into class action settlements with higher values and pay-outs, plaintiffs’ lawyers continued to craft refined and more successful class certification theories to counter the more stringent Rule 23 certification requirements established in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011), and Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 (2013). In the areas of employment discrimination, wage & hour, and ERISA class actions, the plaintiffs’ bar scored exceedingly well in securing class certification rulings in 2015. Statistically, the plaintiffs’ bar secured class certification at an astounding rate of 75% of cases in 2015. In sum, class actions continue to be certified in significant numbers and certain “magnet” jurisdictions continue to issue decisions that encourage or, in effect, force the resolution of large numbers of claims through class action mechanisms.

#15-3099 2015 WCAR Infographics - U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal R7

Fourth, complex employment-related litigation filings are up from past years, but by far and away, wage & hour class actions and collective actions are the leading type of “high stakes” lawsuits being pursued by the plaintiffs’ bar. Case filing statistics for 2015 reflected that wage & hour litigation outpaced all other categories of lawsuits, and increased yet again over the past year, with no end in sight of the crest of the tidal wave of case filings. Additional factors set to coalesce in 2016 – including new FLSA regulations, the impact of digital technology, and increased scrutiny of independent contractor and joint employer relationships – are apt to drive these exposures even higher for Corporate America.

Fifth, government enforcement lawsuits brought by the DOL and EEOC continued the aggressive litigation programs of both agencies. Settlement numbers for government enforcement litigation in 2015 increased substantially over 2014, as did the litigation dockets of the DOL and the EEOC. This trend is critical to employers, as both agencies have a focus on “big impact” lawsuits against companies and “lead by example” in terms of areas that the private plaintiffs’ bar aims to pursue.

Implications For Employers

The one constant in workplace class action litigation is change. More than any other year in recent memory, 2015 was a year of great change in the landscape of Rule 23. As these issues play out in 2016, additional chapters in the class action playbook will be written.

The lesson to draw from 2015 is that the private plaintiffs’ bar and government enforcement attorneys are apt to be equally, if not more, aggressive in 2016 in bringing class action and collective action litigation against employers.

These novel challenges demand a shift of thinking in the way companies formulate their strategies. As class actions and collective actions are a pervasive aspect of litigation in Corporate America, defending and defeating this type of litigation is a top priority for corporate counsel. Identifying, addressing, and remediating class action vulnerabilities, therefore, deserves a place at the top of corporate counsel’s priorities list for 2016.

workshopBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Happy Holiday season to our loyal readers of the Workplace Class Action Blog!

Our elves are busy at work this holiday season in wrapping up the galley proofs of our start-of-the-year kick-off publication – Seyfarth Shaw’s Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report.

We anticipate going to press in the first week of January, and launching the 2016 Report to our readers from our Blog.

This will be our Twelfth Annual Report, and the biggest yet with analysis of over 1,250 class certification rulings from federal and state courts in 2015. As last year, the Report will be available for download as an E-Book too.

The Report is the sole compendium in the U.S. dedicated exclusively to workplace class action litigation, and has become the “go to” research and resource guide for businesses and their corporate counsel facing complex litigation. We were humbled and honored by the review of our Report by Employment Practices Liability Consultant Magazine (“EPLiC”) – the review is here. EPLiC said: “The Report is the singular, definitive source of information, research, and in-depth analysis on employment-related class action litigation. Practitioners and corporate counsel should not be without it on their desk, since the Report is the sole compendium of its kind in the United States.”

The 2016 Report will analyze rulings from all state and federal courts – including private plaintiff class actions and collective actions, and government enforcement actions –  in the substantive areas of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, and the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005. It also features chapters on EEOC pattern or practice rulings, state law class certification decisions, and non-workplace class action rulings that impact employers. The Report also analyzes the leading class action settlements for 2015 for employment discrimination, wage & hour, and ERISA class actions, as well as settlements of government enforcement actions, both with respect to monetary values and injunctive relief provisions.

Information on downloading your copy of the 2016 Report will be available on our blog in early January. Happy Holidays!