By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Matthew J. Gagnon

Seyfarth Synopsis: In a cautionary tale for all employers, the Eleventh Circuit recently upheld a jury verdict of intentional discrimination in an EEOC lawsuit when an employer hired a current employee who was facing an imminent lay-off, rather than the charging party. The employer’s policy was to favor internal candidates who were about to be terminated even if they were not the most qualified or “best” candidate for the open position. The Eleventh Circuit held that a reasonable jury could have found that the application of that policy was merely a pretext for discrimination.

In EEOC v. Exel, Inc., No. 14-11007, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 6629 (11th Cir. Mar. 16, 2018) (available here), the Eleventh Circuit considered and rejected an employer’s challenge to a jury verdict of liability in an EEOC lawsuit, but rejected the jury’s imposition of punitive damages. At issue was the employer’s policy of favoring current employees whose positions were being eliminated for other jobs within the Company, so those employees would not have to lose their jobs. The Eleventh Circuit upheld a jury verdict that was based on the finding that a Hiring Manager discriminated on the basis of sex even though he was ostensibly following the Company’s policy when he hired a soon-to-be-terminated male employee instead of the female charging party.

Case Background

In EEOC v. Exel, the charging party/intervenor complained that her supervisor had denied her a promotion because of her sex. At issue was how the Company filled vacancies. When a job became available, the Hiring Manager would submit an online job requisition for the vacancy. The HR department would then post the job and locate interested candidates from within and outside the Company. Internal applicants could apply on the Company’s website, like external candidates, or they could complete an internal application. HR would consider all candidates together and then forward the best candidates to the Hiring Manger.

However, the Company had a different procedure for considering current employees who were facing termination. The Company’s priority transfer practice (“PTP”) was designed to save employees who worked at a site that was about to undergo a workforce reduction from losing their jobs. Employees applying through the PTP process were given priority over other internal and external candidates as long as they met the minimum qualifications for the job, whether or not they were considered the “best” applicant for the position.

The charging party was passed over for promotion to a supervisory position in favor of an employee who was applying through the PTP process. The EEOC argued that the PTP process was merely a pretext for sex discrimination. It alleged that the Hiring Manager had informed the charging party “behind closed doors” that he would never make a woman a manager. It also alleged that he treated women differently than men and was more “stand-offish” with women.

A jury found in favor of the EEOC and awarded the charging party back pay, compensatory damages, and punitive damages. After trial, the employer filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law with respect to liability and the imposition of punitive damages. The district court denied the motion with respect to liability, but vacated the punitive damages award. The EEOC appealed the vacatur to the Eleventh Circuit. The employer also cross-appealed the denial of its motion as to liability.

Eleventh Circuit Issues Split Decision On Question Of Liability

The Eleventh Circuit refused to overturn the jury’s verdict against the employer on the issue of liability. It was persuaded that a reasonable juror could have found against the employer because the jury heard evidence that: (1) the Hiring Manger had the discretion to hire the charging party despite being presented with a PTP candidate; and (2) the evidence showed that the Hiring Manager harbored a bias against women. Based on that evidence, the Eleventh Circuit held that a reasonable jury could have concluded that the Hiring Manager maintained discretion over his own hiring decisions regardless of the PTP process, and that he exercised that discretion in conformity with his discriminatory animus.

In a lengthy dissent, Judge Tjoflat vigorously disagreed with the majority’s conclusion. According to Judge Tjoflat, no reasonable juror could find that sex discrimination motivated the promotion decision at issue because there was insufficient evidence tying the decision-maker’s generalized discriminatory behavior to the specific employment decision at issue.

He agreed with the majority that the EEOC had presented sufficient evidence that would allow a reasonable factfinder to conclude that the Hiring Manager harbored discriminatory animus towards women. However, the dissent opined that there was not sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the Hiring Manager had any chance to put his alleged bias into action because the evidence demonstrated that he was simply following the PTP process when he hired a man for the open supervisory position instead of the charging party.

No Punitive Damages

With respect to punitive damages, the Eleventh Circuit noted that Title VII allows for the recovery of punitive damages only if an employer engaged in a discriminatory practice “with malice or with reckless indifference to the federally protected rights of an aggrieved individual.” Id. at *9 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(1)). That standard focuses on the decision-maker’s state of mind; however, the EEOC must also impute liability for the punitive damages to the employer.

Under prior Eleventh Circuit precedent, liability is imputable to an employer by showing either that the discriminating employee was high up in the corporate hierarchy, or that higher management countenanced or approved of the behavior. Id. at *10 (quoting Dudley v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 166 F.3d 1317, 1323 (11th Cir. 1999)). However, the Supreme Court later held that punitive damages are imputable to an employer when the discriminatory actor was acting within the scope of employment and acting in a managerial capacity. See Kolstad v. Am. Dental Ass’n, 527 U.S. 526, 535 (1999). The Eleventh Circuit held that it was bound to apply its prior precedent because its subsequent decisions had continued to apply Dudley’s “higher management” standard even after Kolstad was decided. The Eleventh Circuit found that it was bound to apply that precedent unless and until it is overruled or squarely abrogated by the Supreme Court or the Eleventh Circuit sitting en banc.

Applying that standard, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision vacating the award of punitive damages because the EEOC had failed to present evidence that the Hiring Manager (who was also a General Manager) was high enough in the corporate hierarchy. He was one of 329 other General Managers, and he oversaw only 25 employees. The EEOC had also failed to present evidence that any employee above the actor’s rank were aware of the discriminatory decision.

Implications For Employers

One point that was significant for the majority’s decision on liability was that the PTP process was not rigorously followed in all of its details when the discriminatory decision was made. Among other things, the Hiring Manager identified the wrong position when he submitted a requisition for the open position to Corporate HR. This opened the door for the EEOC to argue that the PTP process was merely a pretext for the decision, which the Hiring Manager had used as cover for the discriminatory animus that was really motivating his decision. According to the EEOC, the Hiring Manager requisitioned the wrong position as a means of ensuring that the charging party would not apply for the open position.

One lesson for employers to take away from this case is that any policy that favors one candidate over another is potentially problematic, even where the intentions behind the policy are to protect current employees from layoffs. Employers should take care to ensure that such policies are rigorously applied. Any deviations from that policy could later be called into question and even used against the employer as evidence that the application of that policy in that instance was merely a pretext for discrimination.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Andrew Scroggins

Seyfarth Synopsis: The chief legal officer of the EEOC is an important post, and one which impacts all employers interacting with the Commission. Nearly 14 months after the start of his Administration, President Trump has finally announced his choice for General Counsel of the EEOC.

On the evening of March 19, 2019, the White House announced it will nominate Sharon Fast Gustafson to fill the position of General Counsel at the EEOC. The announcement was a long-time coming, as James Lee had been serving as Acting General Counsel since 2016, after former EEOC David Lopez resigned.

Ms. Gustafson has been an employment lawyer for more than 25 years, almost all of it as a sole practitioner focused on Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia (from 1995-present).  In her practice, she represents primarily employees, though she does represent employers as well.  As noted on her firm’s website, she is a member of the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA), an organization that holds itself out as advancing employee rights.

Ms. Gustafson’s most high-profile litigation matter is her representation of the plaintiff in Young v. UPS, a pregnancy discrimination case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015.  In that case, the plaintiff argued that her employer should have provided an accommodation when her physician limited her to light duty work during her pregnancy.  The Supreme Court declined to follow the EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance for Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues. However, the plaintiff obtained an employee-friendly decision that employers should provide the same reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees as are offered to employees with disabilities.

In addition to her employment practice, Ms. Gustafson has devoted a significant portion of her practice to adoption law and has been recognized as a Fellow of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys since 1997.  Her other affiliations include membership in the Federalist Society, Federal Bar Association, and Metropolitan Washington Employment Lawyers Association.  Ms. Gustafson also is a member of the Board of Trustees for Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.

Ms. Gustafson is married to David Gustafson, a judge on the United States Tax Court in Washington, D.C. who was appointed by President George W. Bush.  The Gustafsons met as undergraduates at Bob Jones University, before she attended Georgetown University Law Center.

To the extent employers had expected the President to announce the appointment of a management-side defense lawyer as the next General Counsel of the EEOC, this announcement is sure to prompt discussion amongst the employer community.

Ms. Gustafson’s nomination continues the Trump administration’s trend of somewhat non-traditional appointment announcements related to the EEOC.  In June 2017, the administration nominated Janet Dhillon, a lawyer working in-house as Executive Vice President, General Counsel, and Corporate Secretary of Burlington Stores, Inc. to serve as Chair.  (The Senate has taken no action on Ms. Dhillon’s confirmation since October 2017; in the meantime, Vicki Lipnic continues to serve as Acting Chair.)  In December 2017, the President nominated Obama-appointee Chai Feldblum to be reappointed as a Commissioner, for a term expiring in 2023, an announcement subsequently criticized by many conservative Republicans.  (The Senate has taken no action on Ms. Feldblum either.)

Like Ms. Dhillon and Ms. Feldblum, Ms. Gustafson must await confirmation by the Senate.  There currently is no timetable for the Senate to take up these issues.

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

Seyfarth Synopsis: Over the past few weeks, two federal appellate courts have issued major decisions on the scope of workplace discrimination protections covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”).  In addition to creating a conflict between various past appellate court precedents, these decisions highlight an ideological divide between two major federal government agencies.  In this video blog, Associate Alex Karasik and Partner Jerry Maatman of Seyfarth Shaw discuss the importance of these decisions, and what employers can expect to see in the evolving debate over Title VII protections.

On February 26, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Second Circuit issued an impactful decision in Zarda, et al. v. Altitude Express, d/b/a Skydive Long Island, et al., No. 15-3775 (2d Cir. Feb. 26, 2018), which fueled the debate over protections for sexual orientation under Title VII. The Second Circuit ruled in favor of a (now-deceased) skydiving instructor who claimed to be fired because he was gay, therefore ruling that sexual orientation is a protected category under Title VII.

Then, just last week, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) notched a major win when the Sixth Circuit sided with the Commission’s position in EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., Nos. 16-2424 & 2018 (6th Cir. Mar. 7, 2018).  We previously blogged about this decision here.  This case considered a transgender worker.

These recent appellate court decisions have agreed with the EEOC’s position on the definition of sex discrimination under Title VII.  However, there is also significant opposition to this position – namely by the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”).  In the Zarda case mentioned above, the EEOC and DOJ both submitted amicus briefs, taking completely opposite sides on this issue.  Additionally, the 11th Circuit issued a decision in March of 2017 entitled Evans v. Georgia Reg’l Hosp., No. 15-15234 (11th Cir. Mar. 10, 2017), which sided with the DOJ and a more strict interpretation of the workplace discrimination laws at hand.

In today’s video, Jerry and Alex discuss this controversial topic in detail, and provide their own insights on the matter.  As Jerry states in the video, what this issue looks to be driving towards is, “a showdown in the U.S. Supreme Court, or the halls of Congress, over the scope and parameters over the protections of Title VII.”

By Scott Rabe, Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., and Marlin Duro

Seyfarth Synopsis: In its recent decision in EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., No. 16-2424, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 5720 (6th Cir. Mar. 7, 2018), the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Sixth Circuit has sent the strong message that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) has minimal impact on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) authority to enforce the anti-discrimination laws under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”).  The ruling is a big win for the EEOC.

In EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., a Sixth Circuit panel held in a unanimous decision that: (i) Title VII’s proscription of discrimination on the basis of sex encompasses a prohibition on discrimination based on transgender status, and that (ii) in this case the RFRA would not limit the EEOC’s authority to enforce anti-discrimination laws under Title VII.  With this decision, the Sixth Circuit became the first federal Court of Appeals to address the extent to which the RFRA may limit the EEOC’s power to enforce Title VII.[1]

Case Background

By way of background, the EEOC brought suit against a funeral home on behalf of a transgender employee, Aimee Stephens, who was terminated from her employment shortly after informing her employer that she intended to transition from male to female.  The EEOC alleged the funeral home violated Title VII by terminating Stephens’ employment on the basis of her transgender or transitioning status and her refusal to conform to sex-based stereotypes.  The funeral home argued that Title VII did not prohibit discrimination on the basis of transgender status and that the funeral home was protected from enforcement of Title VII by the  RFRA as the government action would constitute an unjustified substantial burden upon the funeral home owner’s exercise of his sincerely held religious beliefs.

Both parties moved for summary judgment and the district court found in favor of the funeral home on both motions  The district court found that Title VII did not protect against discrimination based on transgender status and that, while Stephens had suffered discrimination based on sex stereotyping, the RFRA prevented the EEOC from suing on her behalf.

The Sixth Circuit Appeal

On the EEOC’s appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court with respect to both motions and  granted summary judgment in favor of the EEOC. First, the Sixth Circuit held that the funeral home’s conduct violated Title VII, reinforcing its prior holdings that discrimination against employees because of their gender identity and transgender status are illegal under Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination based on sex stereotyping.  The Sixth Circuit explained that “discrimination on the basis of transgender and transitioning status is necessarily discrimination on the basis of sex” and found that firing a person because he or she will no longer represent him or herself as the gender that he or she was born with “falls squarely within the ambit of sex-based discrimination” forbidden under Title VII.  Id. at *18.

Second, the Sixth Circuit held that the EEOC’s enforcement of Title VII against the funeral home did not violate the funeral home’s rights under the RFRA.  A viable defense based on the RFRA requires a demonstration that the government action at issue would substantially burden a sincerely held religious exercise.  Although the Sixth Circuit treated the running of the funeral home as a sincere religious exercise by the owner, it held that the alleged burden caused by the enforcement of Title VII was not “substantial” within the meaning of RFRA.  The Sixth Circuit reasoned that tolerating an employee’s understanding of his or her sex and gender identity was not “tantamount to supporting it” and that mere compliance with Title VII, “without actually assisting or facilitating transition efforts,” did not amount to an endorsement by the employer of the employee’s views.  Id. at *59, *61.  Nor, the Sixth Circuit explained, could the funeral home rely on customers’ “presumed biases” against transgender individuals to meet the substantial burden test. Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit held that the funeral home had not demonstrated a substantial burden on the its religious exercise.

While the Sixth Circuit could have ended its analysis there, it went on to hold that even if tolerating Stephens’ gender identity and transitioning status were a “substantial burden” on the funeral home’s religious exercise, the EEOC did not violate the RFRA because the agency had a compelling interest in eradicating all forms of invidious employment discrimination, and enforcement of Title VII through its enforcement function was the least restrictive means for eradicating discrimination in the workforce.  This analysis, if found not to apply only to the facts of this case, could ostensibly doom any defense to a Title VII action within the Sixth Circuit where an employer raises a defense based on the RFRA.

Implications For Employers

The Sixth Circuit’s opinion is an important one, as it addresses two of the more hot button topics in employment jurisprudence:  the scope of the definition of “sex discrimination” under Title VII and the impact of laws protecting the free exercise of religion in the workplace.  On the former, this opinion joins the recent trend in decisions finding that gender identity is inextricably linked with sex and therefore is protected under Title VII.  And on the latter, the Sixth Circuit has laid down a gauntlet as the first federal circuit addressing the RFRA’s impact on the EEOC’s Title VII enforcement power.  The decision is clearly intended to send a strong message that the RFRA has limited application, if any, in defense of a Title VII action brought by the Commission.  While time will tell whether other federal circuits will adopt a similar interpretation, if the Sixth Circuit’s legal rationale is followed, employers will be hard-pressed to defend Title VII claims brought by the EEOC based on the alleged exercise of religious freedom.

In light of the current uncertainty regarding the ultimate interpretation of Title VII as it applies to gender identity, employers should regularly review their policies to ensure that adequate protections are provided to employees on the basis of their gender identity, and transgender and transitioning status.  As always, we also invite employers to reach out to their Seyfarth contact for solutions and recommendations regarding anti-harassment and EEO policies and addressing compliance with LGBTQ+ issues in the law.

[1]              The RFRA, enacted in 1993, prohibits the government from enforcing a law that is religiously neutral against an individual, if the natural law “substantially burdens” the individual’s religious exercise and is not the least restrictive way to further a compelling government interest.  Importantly, the RFRA applies only in the context of government action, and therefore would not provide a defense for an employer in a civil suit brought by a private plaintiff.

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

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In a showdown between the State of Texas and the EEOC – whereby Texas alleged that the EEOC’s “Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions Under Title VII” interfered with its authority to limit the hiring of felons – a federal district court in Texas recently granted the EEOC’s motion for summary judgment, and denied in part Texas’s motion for summary judgment and request for declaratory relief.

This decision signals to employers that the Commission’s position on the unlawful nature of categorical bans on the hiring of felons remains viable.

***

Case Background

In State of Texas v. EEOC, No. 5:13CV-255, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 30558 (N.D. Tex. Feb. 1, 2018) (which we previously blogged about here), Texas argued that the EEOC’s Guidance directly interfered with its authority to impose categorical bans on hiring felons and to be able to discretionarily reject felons for certain jobs.  Id. at *1.  In its Second Amended Complaint, Texas brought two causes of action.  The first cause of action, brought under the Declaratory Judgment Act, sought a declaration that Texas has a right to maintain and enforce its laws and policies that absolutely bar convicted felons (or certain categories of convicted felons) from serving in any job the State and its Legislature deem appropriate; and (2) an injunction preventing the EEOC and the U.S. Attorney General from enforcing the interpretation of Title VII that appears in the Guidance, and from issuing right-to-sue letters.  Id. at *2.  The second cause of action, brought under the Administrative Procedures Act, asked the Court to hold the Guidance unlawful and to set it aside as (1) a substantive rule issued without notice and opportunity for comment; (2) outside the statutory scope given to the EEOC; and (3) an unreasonable interpretation of Title VII. Id.

The EEOC argued that the Guidance had not yet been enforced against Texas, and therefore, the issue was not ripe for adjudication.  Id.  Further, the EEOC asserted that the only purpose of the Guidance was to update and consolidate all of the EEOC’s prior policy statements about Title VII and the use of criminal records in employment decisions.  The EEOC additionally contended that the Guidance was not an expansion of Title VII’s prohibition against hiring policies that create a disparate impact upon protected classes (in this instance, certain racial classes are alleged to be disproportionately impacted by consideration of felony convictions as a ban for employment opportunities).

The District Court’s Decision

The Court granted the EEOC’s motion for summary judgment, and denied in part Texas’s motion for summary judgment and request for declaratory relief.  First, the Court opined that Texas did not have a right to maintain and enforce its laws and policies that absolutely bar convicted felons (or certain categories of convicted felons) from serving in any job that the State and its Legislature deemed appropriate.  Id. at *3.  The Court explained that although there were many categories of employment for which specific prior criminal history profiles of applicants would be a poor fit and pose far too great a risk to the interests of the State and its citizens, there were also many conceivable scenarios where otherwise qualified applicants with felony convictions would pose no objectively reasonable risk.  Accordingly, the Court held that “a categorical denial of employment opportunities to all job applicants convicted of a prior felony paints with too broad a brush and denies meaningful opportunities of employment to many who could benefit greatly from such employment in certain positions.” Id.

Further, the Court addressed Texas’s request that it enjoin the EEOC from issuing right-to-sue letters in relation to the denial of employment opportunities based on the criminal history of the job applicant.  The Court rejected this request, holding the issuance of a right to sue letter was not a determination by the EEOC that a meritorious claim exists. However, the Court did grant Texas’s motion for summary judgment as to its APA claim, noting the Guidance was a substantive rule issued without notice and the opportunity for comment. The Court thus enjoined the EEOC from enforcing the guidance until the notice and comment requirements were satisfied. Accordingly, the Court granted the EEOC’s motion for summary judgment, and denied in part Texas’s motion for summary judgment and request for declaratory relief. Id. at *3-4.

Implications For Employers

This decision has a heavy dose of procedure, but assuming the District Court’s decision remains in place, it nonetheless puts employers on notice that courts will likely give strong deference to the EEOC’s Guidance when considering categorical bans regarding the hiring of felons.  Further, the EEOC will likely use the momentum it gained from this ruling to continue enforcement of its Guidance in an aggressive fashion and investigate businesses with such sweeping hiring practices.

While employers in certain industries may have legitimate reasons for not hiring particular felons (for instance, a bank refusing to hire a felon convicted of embezzlement), businesses need to be cautious about implementing blanket hiring prohibitions of felons.  Accordingly, the best practice for employers is to focus on the qualifications of applicants, and make hiring decisions based on merit.

 

 

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Christopher J. DeGroff, Matthew J. Gagnon, & Kyla Miller

Seyfarth Synopsis: This month the EEOC released its 2018-2022 strategic plan, which focuses on preventing and combating discrimination and improving the EEOC’s organizational functionality. It also released the agency’s 2019 budget request, which mirrors its $363 million dollar request from last year.

Strategic Plan: FY 2018-2022

On February 12, 2018, the EEOC approved its Strategic Plan for fiscal years 2018-2022 (available here). The EEOC is required to publish a strategic plan, which serves as a framework for the EEOC in implementing its mission to combat employment discrimination. The Strategic Plan is not to be confused with the Strategic Enforcement Plan. We like to think of the Strategic Enforcement Plan as the “what,” and the Strategic Plan as the “how.” The Strategic Enforcement plan, discussed more fully here, explains what priorities the EEOC will focus on. More generally, the Strategic Plan lays out the high level overview of how the agency is going to achieve those objectives. The 2018-2022 strategic plan includes three general objectives:

  1. Combat and prevent employment discrimination through the strategic application of the EEOC’s law enforcement authorities.

The EEOC has outlined two outcome goals of this strategic objective. First, the EEOC aims to stop and remedy discriminatory employment practices and provide meaningful relief to victims. Second, the EEOC would like to exercise its enforcement authority fairly, efficiently, and based on the circumstances of each charge or complaint.

  1. Prevent employment discrimination through education and outreach.

This objective reflects the EEOC’s interest in deterring employment discrimination before it occurs. The primary means to this goal includes investigations, conciliations, and litigation. The EEOC’s two goals for this strategic objective include helping members of the public understand the law and their rights, and for employers, unions, and employment agencies to prevent discrimination and address EEO issues when they occur.

  1. Management objective.

This objective is focused on the EEOC “achieving organizational excellence,” which includes improving management functions with a focus on information technology, infrastructure enhancement, and accountable financial stewardship. The EEOC pledged accountability for improving its operations where needed. The two outcome goals for this objective include having staff that exemplify a culture of excellence, respect and accountability, and allocating resources effectively to ensure they line up with their stated priorities.

FY 2019 Budget Request

With its new strategic plan also comes a new budget request (available here). The EEOC is requesting $363,807,086 for fiscal year 2019, which includes $29,443,921 for state and local fair employment practice agencies (FEPAs) and tribal employment rights organizations (TEROs).

The EEOC urges congressional support, citing its commitment to building a digital workplace to increase their efficiency and provide timely service to the public. The agency also states a need for more staff and resources to deliver high quality service. The EEOC says that it intends to maintain its staffing levels in order to further reduce the charge backlog. The funding is also anticipated to cover “rents and mandatory office relocations.”

This request is  $1.783 million over the fiscal year 2018 Continuing Resolution level, but is the exact same budget request it made for fiscal year 2018. This year’s budget goals include: (1) investing in the “agency of the future”; (2) managing the inventory and reducing backlog; (3) improving and leveraging technology; and (4) outreach, education, and strategic law enforcement. Time will tell if the EEOC’s budget request will be approved, and whether it will use that money wisely.

Implications For Employers

As anyone who is paying attention to the news knows, the future direction of the budget for many federal agencies is a bit uncertain. For example, President Trump’s recently released budget proposes huge cuts for a different federal agency — the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This makes the relative stability of the EEOC’s budget request somewhat remarkable. Whether it can continue to fly under the radar of federal budget cutting remains to be seen. In the meantime, employers should keep in mind that the EEOC managed to file an impressive number of lawsuits last year while operating under pretty much the same budgetary constraints that are proposed for fiscal year 2019.

Seyfarth Synopsis: On February 6, 2018, Seyfarth Shaw Partner Jerry Maatman and Bloomberg Law Senior Legal Editor Perry Cooper presented a timely event on “Top Trends In Workplace Class Action Litigation Panel Discussion.” The discussions focused on views of cutting edge issues relative to the workplace class action litigation landscape.  With over 1,000 people attending either in person at our Chicago office or via our live Webcast, Maatman and Cooper’s discussion was a “must see” for representatives of businesses across the country.

Following Seyfarth Shaw’s recent launch of its 2018 Workplace Class Action Litigation Report, Jerry Maatman distilled the 900-page publication into key trends and takeaways on the most important developments impacting employers from the past year in class action litigation, as well as future trends that businesses should keep on their radar.  Perry Cooper added further in-depth analysis relative to many of the key U.S. Supreme Court cases affecting employment law and class actions, which she has been tracking and writing about extensively on Bloomberg’s behalf.

The engaging discussion focused on four key trends that were identified in the 2018 Workplace Class Action Litigation Report, including: (1) the monetary value of the top workplace class action settlements rose dramatically in 2017; (2) while federal and state courts issued many favorable class certification rulings for the plaintiffs’ bar in 2017, evolving case law precedents and new defense approaches resulted in better outcomes for employers in opposing class certification requests; (3) filings and settlements of government enforcement litigation in 2017 did not reflect a head-snapping pivot from the ideological pro-worker (or anti-big business) outlook of the Obama Administration to a pro-business, less regulation/less litigation viewpoint of the Trump Administration; and (4) class action litigation increasingly has been shaped and influenced by recent rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Maatman provided several noteworthy takeaways, including three highlights:

  • 2017 was “by far the largest cash-take for plaintiffs’ lawyers” ever in terms of workplace class actions settlements, as the top ten settlements in various employment-related class action categories totaled $2.72 billion in 2017, a “breathtaking and remarkable” increase of over $970 million from $1.75 billion in 2016.  Check out how Jerry explained the importance of this increase in settlements by clicking the video below!

  • In 2018, “as the government’s administration is getting settled in,” employers should anticipated seeing, “smaller governmental enforcement lawsuits brought on behalf of a smaller number of employees.”
  • Regarding the recent onslaught of workplace sexual harassment accusations and investigations in the context of the #MeToo campaign, “although headlines in the paper may be very difficult to stomach for some employers, and the piper must be paid in a certain respect, I’m not convinced it will be through successful prosecution of class action litigation insofar as sex harassment is concerned. That theory will run smack into the Rule 23 barriers created by Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes.”

Overall, Maatman and Cooper’s discussion left little doubt that 2018 will be an eventful year in terms of the workplace class action arena.  Employers should anticipate that the private plaintiffs’ bar and government enforcement attorneys at the state level are apt to be equally, if not more, aggressive in 2018 in bringing class action and collective action litigation against employers.  As such, businesses absolutely should stay tuned in regarding developments in this space.

Thank you to everyone who joined us either here in Chicago or via our live webcast.  For those interested in viewing a video of the presentation, stay tuned. We will be posting a complete video of the event this week.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Our latest blog gave readers a detailed breakdown of a busy year on the litigation front at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and Department of Labor (“DOL”).  Notably, our 2018 Workplace Class Action Report highlighted a doubling in EEOC-initiated lawsuits despite the incorporation of a pro-business Trump Administration.  In today’s blog, author Jerry Maatman explains this important trend, and provides his analysis on the direction of government-initiated litigation in 2018.  Watch the video in the link below!

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Despite the major ideological shift that occurred within American politics in 2017, government-initiated litigation continued to flourish if not increase even after with the election of the pro-business Trump Administration.  A clear example of this can be seen in the courtroom, as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) filed more than the double the amount of merit lawsuits in 2017 than the Commission initiated in 2016.  Today, readers are given an overview of a busy year at the EEOC and Department of Labor (“DOL”), as well as what employers should expect in the future in terms of government enforcement litigation.  Check out this exclusive excerpt from the 2018 Workplace Class Action Report below!   

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 2017. Both the EEOC and the DOL intensified the focus of their administrative enforcement activities and litigation filings in 2017. At the same time, the number of lawsuits filed and the resulting recoveries by settlement – measured by aggregate litigation filings and the top 10 settlements in government enforcement litigation – constituted a ten-fold increase as compared to what the EEOC and DOL achieved in 2016.

To the extent the Trump Administration aims to change those dynamics, its agency appointees either were not nominated in time to influence their respective agencies or were not put into place until mid to late 2017. The result was a delay in charges 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 2018.

As a result, the EEOC’s lawsuit count increased geometrically in 2017. 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 2017 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 2017.

By comparison to previous years, 2017 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 2017 than it did in all of the months of 2016 combined. This can be seen in the following graph:This past year also marked the first 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. A breakdown of court decisions by state regarding sexual orientation under Title VII can be seen in the following map:

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 2018 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 2018 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.

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 2017. 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 2017. 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 2017 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.” Systemic trends from the last five years of EEOC systemic cases can be seen in the following graph:The EEOC’s FY 2017 report outlined the EEOC’s activity from October 2, 2016 to September 30, 2017. It showed the following:

  • The EEOC’s field offices resolved 329 systemic investigations and collected $38.4 million in remedies (compared to 273 systemic investigations and $20.5 million in 2016). The figures for 2017 constitute significant increases over the previous year, and are near record amounts for monetary relief for systemic cases.
  • The EEOC also issued cause determinations finding discrimination in 167 systemic investigations (compared to 113 in 2016). Consequently, not only did the EEOC resolve more systemic investigations compared to 2016, but also it made considerably more cause determinations that it converted into beefed-up recoveries for claimants compared to last year.
  • The EEOC secured approximately $484 million in total relief in 2017 in litigation, mediations, and pre-litigation investigations. This tracks closely to last year’s total relief figure of $482.1 million. It also includes $355.6 million obtained through mediation, conciliation, and settlement for victims of discrimination in private, state and local government, and federal workplaces. That number is marginally up from last year, which saw $347.9 million in such recoveries.
  • Litigation recoveries, on the other hand, have been steadily declining over the past few years, hitting only $42.4 million in 2017. This is markedly lower than 2016 and 2015, which saw the EEOC obtain $52.2 million and $65.3 million in litigation recoveries respectively.
  • The EEOC filed 184 merits lawsuits in 2017. This is more than double the 86 merits lawsuits that were filed in 2016. Of the lawsuits, 124 were on behalf of individuals, 30 were non-systemic suits with multiple victims, and the other 30 were systemic claims. The EEOC also filed 18 subpoena enforcement actions in 2017. Hence, the EEOC in the first year of the Trump Administration was far more active in filing lawsuits than in the final year of the Obama Administration.
  • In FY 2017, the EEOC resolved 99,109 charges, a marked increase over the past two years. As a result, the EEOC decreased its charge inventory by 16.2%, to 61,621 charges. This is the lowest level of charge inventory in 10 years and represents a significant reduction compared to FY 2016, when the EEOC only reduced its outstanding charges by 3.8%.

By comparison, the DOL’s enforcement recoveries dwarfed those of the EEOC in 2017, as the DOL undertook aggressive enforcement activities over the past year and scored increases in settlements both in court actions and in the administrative investigation process. Without a full leadership team in place at the DOL’s Wage & Hour Division (“WHD”), the enforcement program continued on the same track as it had been under the Obama Administration. In FY 2017, the WHD recovered more than $270 million in back pay wages for more than 240,000 workers, which represented a solid increase from the back wages recovered in the previous year. Given the Trump Administration’s focus on policy changes, employers can expect that many of these enforcement strategies will get a closer look as the new DOL leadership team falls into place in 2018.

Over the past several years, the WHD fundamentally changed the way in which it pursues its investigations. Suffice to say, the investigations have been more searching and extensive, and often result in higher monetary penalties for employers. According to the DOL, since early 2009, the WHD has closed 200,000 cases nationwide, resulting in more than $2.2 billion in back wages for over 2.24 million workers. In FY 2017, the WHD collected more than $270 million in back wages. For much of the year, the DOL kept up its aggressive enforcement program, particularly in the hotel, restaurant, and retail industries. Much of the WHD’s enforcement and other activities took place under the umbrella of “fissured industries” initiatives, which focus on industries with high usage of franchising, sub-contracting, and independent contractors. At the conclusion of those enforcement actions, the WHD continued to increase its use of civil money penalties, liquidated damages, and enhanced compliance agreements. As the Trump Administration reviews and considers the prior Administration’s enforcement policies, we expect that 2018 is apt to bring a stark change in enforcement priorities and strategies.

The new year brought a new Administration and high expectations by employers for change at the WHD. Political reality and the Senate calendar, however, combined to limit the WHD’s ability to implement that change. For most of 2017, only Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta and a single Assistant Secretary had been confirmed by the Senate. By year’s end, the DOL Solicitor and several Assistant Secretaries had been confirmed; the critical position of the WHD Administrator remained vacant, as well as another dozen or so senior positions at the DOL. With the senior leadership team in place at the DOL by 2018, the agency is likely to make significant headway on the Trump Administration’s policy objectives in the coming year.

Nevertheless, 2017 provided an opportunity for the new WHD to address some of its most pressing issues. The DOL was immediately tasked with defending the prior Administration’s revisions to the Part 541 overtime exemption regulations, which had been enjoined in federal court in advance of their effective date in late 2016. Those revisions, which would have doubled the existing salary level required for the white-collar exemptions, substantially increased the minimum level required for the highly-compensated-employee exemption, and automatically increased the salary level on a periodic basis. These were the first changes to Part 541 in more than 10 years. However, those changes were ruled invalid on the basis that the salary level established in the regulation exceeded the Department’s authority.

The Trump Administration managed to position itself well for future developments regarding the overtime regulations, defending the DOL’s authority to set a salary level generally (which some believed had been called into question by the order declaring the Obama overtime rule invalid), while electing not to defend the specific salary level established in the 2016 regulation. It is likely that DOL will propose yet another change to the regulations in 2018.

The DOL also took the first steps in rolling back the prior Administration’s view of what it means to be “employed” under the FLSA. In June of 2017, the DOL announced the withdrawal of the WHD Administrator’s Interpretation 2015-1 (“AI”), which contained the WHD’s analysis of the employee vs. independent contractor issue, and AI 2016-1, which contained the WHD’s analysis of the joint employment issue. Both AIs were regarded as having an incredibly broad interpretation of what it means to have an employment relationship. Although no replacement guidance has yet been issued, the withdrawal of the AIs is seen as a signal that the current Administration does not take such an expansive view of what it means to be “employed” under the FLSA.

Around the same time as its withdrawal of the AIs, the DOL also announced the return to the use of opinion letters. After decades of use, these regulatory tools had been abandoned by the Obama Administration. The DOL’s decision to restart its issuance of opinion letters allows employers and employees alike to seek formal guidance from the WHD on some of the most challenging wage & hour issues. No opinion letters have yet been issued, but it is clear that compliance assistance will once again be a valuable tool in the arsenal of the WHD, alongside its enforcement activities.

Not to be outdone, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) also undertook an ambitious agenda in 2017. 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, eliminating protections for obscene, vulgar, and highly inappropriate activity under the NLRA.

Implications For Employers

Regarding the 2018 Fiscal Year, employers can expect to see a significant decrease in government-initiated litigation and overall government enforcement in the workplace. Additionally, the lawsuits that are filed will likely include smaller groups of people and more isolated issues. This will particularly be seen at the EEOC, which is awaiting Senate confirmation on two Trump-appointed Commissioners sure to alter the entity’s policy direction. Rather than expanding government’s role in business and attempting to set innovative legal precedent, we predict the DOL and EEOC will stick to simple enforcement of current regulations. As always, we will stay on top of this important issue and keep our readers informed as new revelations come to light!

Seyfarth Synopsis: At 878 pages, Seyfarth’s 14th Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report analyzes 1,408 rulings and is our biggest and most voluminous Report ever.

Click here to access the microsite featuring all the Report highlights. You can read about the four major trends of the past year, order your copy of the eBook, and download Chapters 1 and 2 on the 2018 Executive Summary and key class action settlements.

The Report was featured today in an exclusive article in the Wall Street Journal. Click here to read the coverage!

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.’”  Furthermore, EPLiC recognized our Report as the “state-of-the-art word” on workplace class action litigation. You can read more about the review here.

The 2018 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 2017 for employment discrimination, wage & hour, ERISA class actions, and statutory workplace laws, 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

The prosecution of workplace class action litigation by the plaintiffs’ bar has increased exponentially over the past decade. More often than not, class actions pose unique “bet-the-company” risks for employers. An adverse judgment in a class action has the potential to bankrupt a business and adverse publicity can eviscerate its market share. Likewise, the on-going defense of a class action can drain corporate resources long before the case even 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 in numerous jurisdictions at the same time. Hence, workplace class actions can adversely impact a corporation’s business operations, jeopardize or cut short the careers of senior management, and cost millions of dollars to defend. For these reasons, risks from workplace class actions are at the top of the list of challenges that keep business leaders up late at night.

Skilled plaintiffs’ class action lawyers and governmental enforcement litigators are not making this challenge any easier for companies. They are continuing to develop new theories and approaches to the successful prosecution of complex employment litigation. New rulings by federal and state courts have added to this patchwork quilt of compliance problems and risk management issues.

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 at a rapid pace while also undergoing significant change. Notwithstanding the transition to new leadership in the White House in 2017, governmental enforcement litigation pursued by the EEOC and the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) continued to manifest an aggressive “push-the-envelope” agenda by 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.

Adding to this mosaic of challenges in 2018 is the continuing evolution in federal policies based on a new political party occupying the White House for part of 2017. Furthermore, while changes to government priorities started on Inauguration Day and are on-going, others are being carried out by new leadership at the agency level who were appointed in the fourth quarter of this past year. As expected, many changes represent stark reversals in policy that are sure to have a cascading impact on private class action litigation. While predictions about the future of workplace class action litigation may cover a wide array of potential outcomes, the one sure bet is that change is inevitable and corporate America will continue to face new litigation challenges.

Key Trends Of 2017

An overview of workplace class action litigation developments in 2017 reveals four key trends.

First, the monetary value of the top workplace class action settlements rose dramatically in 2017. These numbers increased over past years, even after they had reached all-time highs in 2014 to 2016. The plaintiffs’ employment class action bar and governmental enforcement litigators were exceedingly successful in monetizing their case filings into large class-wide settlements, and they did so at decidedly higher values than in previous years. The top ten settlements in various employment-related class action categories totaled $2.72 billion in 2017, an increase of over $970 million from $1.75 billion in 2016. Furthermore, settlements of employment discrimination class actions experienced over a three-fold increase in value; statutory workplace class actions saw nearly a five-fold increase; and government enforcement litigation registered nearly a ten-fold increase. Whether this is the beginning of a long-range trend or a short-term aberration remains to be seen as 2018 unfolds, but the determinative markers suggest this upward trend will rise further in 2018, at least insofar as private plaintiff class actions are concerned.

Second, while federal and state courts issued many favorable class certification rulings for the plaintiffs’ bar in 2017, evolving case law precedents and new defense approaches resulted in better outcomes for employers in opposing class certification requests. Plaintiffs’ lawyers continued to craft refined class certification theories to counter the more stringent Rule 23 certification requirements established in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011). As a result, in the areas of employment discrimination and ERISA class actions, the plaintiffs’ bar scored well in securing class certification rulings in federal courts in 2017 (over comparative figures for 2016). Class actions were certified in significant numbers in “magnet” jurisdictions that continued to issue decisions that encourage or, in effect, force the resolution of large numbers of claims through class-wide mechanisms. Yet, while the sheer volume of wage & hour certification decisions in 2017 increased as compared to last year, employers actually fared better in litigating those class certification motions in federal court than last year. Of the 257 wage & hour certification decisions in 2017, plaintiffs won 170 of 233 conditional certification rulings (approximately 73%), but lost 15 of 24 decertification rulings (approximately 63%). By way of comparison, there were 224 wage & hour certification decisions in 2016, where plaintiffs won 147 of 195 conditional certification rulings (approximately 76%) and lost 13 of 29 decertification rulings (approximately 45%). In sum, employers beat slightly more first stage conditional certification motions in 2017, and dramatically increased their odds – a jump of 18% – of fracturing cases with successful decertification motions.

Third, filings and settlements of government enforcement litigation in 2017 did not reflect a head-snapping pivot from the ideological pro-worker (or anti-big business) outlook of the Obama Administration to a pro-business, less regulation/litigation viewpoint of the Trump Administration. Instead, as compared to 2016, government enforcement litigation actually increased in 2017. As an example, the EEOC alone brought 184 lawsuits in 2017 as compared to 86 lawsuits in 2016. Further, the settlement value of the top ten settlements in government enforcement cases jumped dramatically – from $52.3 million in 2016 to $485.25 million in 2017. The explanations for this phenomenon are wide and varied, and include the time-lag between Obama-appointed enforcement personnel vacating their offices and Trump-appointed personnel taking charge of agency decision-making power; the number of lawsuits “in the pipeline” that were filed during the Obama Administration that came to conclusion in the past year; and the “hold-over” effect whereby Obama-appointed policy-makers remained in their positions long enough to continue their enforcement efforts before being replaced in the last half of 2017. This trend is critical to employers, as both the DOL and the EEOC have had a focus on “big impact” lawsuits against companies and “lead by example” in terms of areas that the private plaintiffs’ bar aims to pursue. As 2018 opens, it appears that the content and scope of enforcement litigation undertaken by the DOL and the EEOC in the Trump Administration will tilt away from the pro-employee/anti-big business mindset of the previous Administration. Trump appointees at the DOL and the EEOC are slowly but surely “peeling back” on positions previously advocated under the Obama Administration. As a result, it appears inevitable that the volume of government enforcement litigation and value of settlement numbers from those cases will decrease in 2018. The ultimate effect, however, may well prompt the private plaintiffs’ class action bar to “fill the void” and expand the volume of workplace litigation pursued against employers over the coming year as the DOL and the EEOC adjust their litigation enforcement activities.

Fourth and finally, class action litigation increasingly has been shaped and influenced by recent rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court. Over the past several years, the U.S. Supreme Court has accepted more cases for review – and issued more rulings 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 and class action issues that were arguably more pro-business than decisions in past years. More cases also were accepted for review in 2017 that are positioned for rulings in 2018, including what may be the most high-stakes issue impacting employers since the Wal-Mart ruling in 2011 – the Epic Systems, Murphy Oil, and E & Y trilogy of cases on the legality of workplace arbitration agreements with class action waivers. The ruling expected in the Epic System, Murphy Oil, and E & Y cases in 2018 may well change the class action playing field in profound ways. Coupled with the appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch in 2017 and potential additional appointments to the Supreme Court by President Trump in 2018 and beyond, litigation dynamics may well be re-shaped in ways that further change the playbook for prosecuting and defending class actions.

Implications For Employers

The one constant in workplace class action litigation is change. More than any other year in recent memory, 2017 was a year of great change in the landscape of Rule 23. As these issues play out in 2018, additional chapters in the class action playbook will be written.

The lesson to draw from 2017 is that the private plaintiffs’ bar and government enforcement attorneys at the state level are apt to be equally, if not more, aggressive in 2018 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 2018.