By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: As our 2019 Workplace Class Action Report describes, 2018 was quite an interesting year for employers in terms of class certification rulings. Plaintiffs achieved robust numbers of initial conditional certification rulings of wage & hour collective actions in 2018, while employers secured less defeats of conditional certification motions and decertification of § 216(b) collective actions. Check out the extensive analysis below!

Anecdotally, surveys of corporate counsel confirm that complex workplace litigation – and especially class actions and multi-plaintiff lawsuits – remains one of the chief exposures driving corporate legal budgetary expenditures, as well as the type of legal dispute that causes the most concern for companies. The prime component in that array of risks is indisputably complex wage & hour litigation.

The circuit-by-circuit analysis of 301 class certification decisions in all varieties of workplace class action litigation is detailed in the following map:

Wage & Hour Certification Trends

Plaintiffs achieved robust numbers of initial conditional certification rulings of wage & hour collective actions in 2018, while employers secured less defeats of conditional certification motions and decertification of § 216(b) collective actions. The percentage of successful motions for decertification brought by employers saw a significant dip in 2018 to 52%. This was fully 11% less than the figure of 63% in 2017.

Most significantly, for only the second time in over a decade, and for the second year in a row, wage & hour lawsuit filings in federal courts decreased. That being said, the volume of FLSA lawsuit filings for the preceding four years – during 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 – were at the highest levels in the last several decades.

As a result, an increase in FLSA filings over the past several years had caused the issuance of more FLSA certification rulings than in any other substantive area of complex employment litigation – 273 certification rulings in 2018, as compared to 257 certification rulings in 2017, 224 certification rulings in 2016, and 175 certification rulings in 2015.

The analysis of these rulings – discussed in Chapter V of this Report – shows that a high predominance of cases are brought against employers in “plaintiff-friendly” jurisdictions such as the judicial districts within the Second and Ninth Circuits. For the first time in a decade, however, rulings were equally voluminous out of the Fifth Circuit, which also tended to favor workers over employers in conditional certification rulings. This trend is shown in the following map:

The statistical underpinnings of this circuit-by-circuit analysis of FLSA certification rulings is telling in several respects.

First, it substantiates that the district courts within the Second, Fifth, and Ninth Circuits are the epi-centers of wage & hour class actions and collective actions. More cases were prosecuted and conditionally certified – 50 certification orders in the Ninth Circuit, 42 certification orders in the Fifth Circuit, and 32 certification orders in the Second Circuit – in the district courts in those circuits than in any other areas of the country. That being said, the district courts in the Third, Fourth, and Sixth Circuits were not far behind, with 22, 23, and 29 certification orders respectively in those jurisdictions.

Second, as the burdens of proof reflect under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), plaintiffs won the overwhelming majority of “first stage” conditional certification motions (196 of 248 rulings, or approximately 79%). However, in terms of “second stage” decertification motions, employers prevailed in just over half of those cases (13 of 25 rulings, or approximately 52% of the time).

The “first stage” conditional certification statistics for plaintiffs at 79% for 2018 were even more favorable to workers than in 2017, when plaintiffs won 73% of “first stage” conditional certification motions. However, employers fared much worse in 2018 on “second stage” decertification motions. Employers won decertification motions at a rate of 52%, which was down from 63% in 2017 (but up slightly from 45% in 2016).

The following chart illustrates this trend for 2018:

Third, this reflects that there has been an on-going migration of skilled plaintiffs’ class action lawyers into the wage & hour litigation space for close to a decade. Experienced and able plaintiffs’ class action counsel typically secure better results. Further, securing initial “first stage” conditional certification – and foisting settlement pressure on an employer – can be done quickly (almost right after the case is filed), with a minimal monetary investment in the case (e.g., no expert is needed, unlike the situation when certification is sought in an employment discrimination class action or an ERISA class action), and without having to conduct significant discovery (per the case law that has developed under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b)).

As a result, to the extent litigation of class actions and collective actions by plaintiffs’ lawyers is viewed as an investment of time and money, prosecution of wage & hour lawsuits is a relatively low cost investment, without significant barriers to entry, and with the prospect of immediate returns as compared to other types of workplace class action litigation.

Hence, as compared to ERISA and employment discrimination class actions, FLSA litigation is less difficult or protracted for the plaintiffs’ bar, and more cost-effective and predictable. In terms of their “rate of return,” the plaintiffs’ bar can convert their case filings more readily into certification orders, and create the conditions for opportunistic settlements over shorter periods of time.

The certification statistics for 2018 confirm these factors.

The great unknown for workplace class action litigation is the impact of the Epic Systems ruling, and whether it reduces class action activity in the judicial system and depresses settlement values of workplace lawsuits.

At the same time, a future Congress may effectuate a legislative response to abrogate or limit the impact of workplace arbitration agreements with class action waivers, but that will be dependent upon ideological and political dynamics based on future elections.

As a result, Epic Systems may well impact case filing numbers in the near term, and as a result, class action settlement numbers are likely to decrease.

Employment Discrimination & ERISA Certification Trends

Against the backdrop of wage & hour litigation, the ruling in Wal-Mart also fueled more critical thinking and crafting of case theories in employment discrimination and ERISA class action filings in 2018.

The Supreme Court’s Rule 23 decisions have had the effect of forcing the plaintiffs’ bar to “re-boot” the architecture of their class action theories. At least one result was the decision two years ago in Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo, 136 S. Ct. 1036 (2016), in which the Supreme Court accepted the plaintiffs’ arguments that, in effect, appeared to soften the requirements previously imposed in Wal-Mart for maintaining and proving class claims, at least in wage & hour litigation.

Hence, it is clear that the playbook on Rule 23 strategies is undergoing a continuous process of evolution.

Filings of “smaller” employment discrimination class actions have increased due to a strategy whereby state or regional-type classes are asserted more often than the type of nationwide mega-cases that Wal-Mart discouraged.

In essence, at least in the employment discrimination area, the plaintiffs’ litigation playbook is more akin to a strategy of “aim small to secure certification, and if unsuccessful, then miss small.”

In turn, whereas employment-related class certification motions were a mixed bag or tantamount to a “jump ball” in 2017 – when 7 of 11 motions were granted and 4 of 11 were denied – employers were far more successful in 2018, where only 3 of 11 motions were granted for plaintiffs and 8 of 11 were denied.

The certification rate of 27% was the lowest on record over the last decade.

The following map demonstrates this array of certification rulings in Title VII and ADEA discrimination cases:

In terms of the ERISA class action litigation scene in 2018, the focus continued to rest on precedents of the U.S. Supreme Court as it shaped and refined the scope of potential liability and defenses in ERISA class actions.

The Wal-Mart decision also has changed the ERISA certification playing field by giving employers more grounds to oppose class certification.

The decisions in 2018 show that class certification motions have the best chance of denial in the context of ERISA welfare plans, and ERISA defined contribution pension plans, where individualized notions of liability and damages are prevalent.

While plaintiffs were more successful than employers in litigating certification motions in ERISA class actions, their success rate was less than in previous years. In 2018, plaintiffs won 11 of 17 certification rulings or 65%. By comparison, in 2017, plaintiffs won 17 of 22 certification motions, with a success rate of 77%.

A map illustrating these trends is shown below:

Overall Trends

So what conclusions overall can be drawn on class certification trends in 2018?

In the areas of wage & hour and ERISA claims, the plaintiffs’ bar is converting their case filings into certification of classes at a high rate. To the extent class certification aids the plaintiffs’ bar in monetizing their lawsuit filings and converting them into class action settlements, the conversion rate is robust. Conversely, plaintiffs’ success rate in the context of employment discrimination class actions is modest, as employers have a high success rate in blocking such certification motions.

Whereas class certification for employment discrimination cases (3 motions granted and 8 motions denied in 2018) was far less possible, class certification is relatively easier in ERISA cases 11 motions granted and 6 motions denied in 2018), but most prevalent in wage & hour litigation (with 196 conditional certification motions granted and 52 motions denied, as well as 13 decertification motions granted and 12 motions denied).

The following bar graph details the win/loss percentages in each of these substantive areas:

–          a 27% success rate for certification of employment discrimination class actions (both Title VII and age discrimination cases);

–          a 65% success rate for certification of ERISA class actions; and,

–          a 79% success rate for conditional certification of wage & hour collective actions.

Obviously, the most certification activity in workplace class action litigation is in the wage & hour space.

The trend over the last three years in the wage & hour space reflects a steady success rate that ranged from a low of 70% to a high of 79% (with 2018 representing the highest success rate ever) for the plaintiffs’ bar, which is tilted toward plaintiff-friendly “magnet” jurisdictions were the case law favors workers and presents challenges to employers seeking to block certification.

Yet, the key statistic in 2018 for employers was a significant decrease in the odds of successful decertification of wage & hour cases to 52%, as compared to 63% in 2017, a decrease of 11%.

Comparatively, the trend over the past five years for certification orders is illustrated in the following chart:

While each case is different and no two class actions or collective actions are identical, these statistics paint the all-too familiar picture that employers have experienced over the last several years. The new wrinkle to influence these factors in 2018 was the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2018 in Epic Systems and in 2016 in Tyson Foods. To the extent it assists plaintiffs in their certification theories, future certification decisions may well trend further upward for workers.

Lessons From 2018

There are multiple lessons to be drawn from these trends in 2018.

First, while the Wal-Mart ruling undoubtedly heightened commonality standards under Rule 23(a)(2) starting in 2011, and the Comcast decision tightened the predominance factors at least for damages under Rule 23(b) in 2013, the plaintiffs’ bar has crafted theories and “work arounds” to maintain or increase their chances of successfully securing certification orders in ERISA and wage & hour cases. This did not hold true in the context of employment discrimination lawsuits. In 2018, their certification numbers were up for ERISA and wage & hour case, and down for employment discrimination litigation.

Second, the defense-minded decisions in Wal-Mart and Comcast have not taken hold in any significant respect in the context of FLSA certification decisions for wage & hour cases. Efforts by the defense bar to use the commonality standards from Wal-Mart and the predominance analysis from Comcast have not impacted the ability of the plaintiffs’ bar to secure first-stage conditional certification orders under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). If anything, the ruling two years ago in Tyson Foods has made certification prospects even easier for plaintiffs in the wage & hour space, insofar as conditional certification motions are concerned. The conversion rate of successful certification motions hit an all-time high of 79% in 2018.

Third, while monetary relief in a Rule 23(b)(2) context is severely limited, certification is the “holy grail” in class action litigation, and certification of any type of class – even a non-monetary injunctive relief class claim – often drives settlement decisions. This is especially true for employment discrimination and ERISA class actions, as plaintiffs’ lawyers can recover awards of attorneys’ fees under fee-shifting statutes in an employment litigation context. In this respect, the plaintiffs’ bar is nothing if not ingenuous, and targeted certification theories (e.g., issue certification on a limited discrete aspect of a case) are the new norm in federal and state courthouses.

Fourth, during the certification stage, courts are more willing than ever before to assess facts that overlap with both certification and merits issues, and to apply a more practical assessment of the Rule 23(b) requirement of predominance, which focuses on the utility and superiority of a preclusive class-wide trial of common issues. Courts are also more willing to apply a heightened degree of scrutiny to expert opinions offered to establish proof of the Rule 23 requirements.

Finally, employers now have a weapon to short-circuit the decision points for class action exposure through use of mandatory workplace arbitration agreements. Based on the Epic Systems ruling, a class waiver in an arbitration agreement is now an effective first-line defense to class-based litigation.

In sum, notwithstanding these shifts in proof standards and the contours of judicial decision-making, the likelihood of class certification rulings favoring plaintiffs are not only “alive and well” in the post-Wal-Mart and post-Comcast era, but also thriving. The battle ground may shift, however, as employers may create a bulwark against such class-based claims based on the Epic Systems ruling.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: At 852 pages, Seyfarth’s 15th Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report analyzes 1,453 rulings and is our most comprehensive Report ever.

Click here to access the microsite featuring all the Report highlights. You can read about the five major trends of the past year, order your copy of the eBook, and download Chapters 1 and 2 on the 2019 Executive Summary and key class action settlements.

The Report was featured today in an exclusive article in MarketWatch. 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 must-have resource for legal research and in-depth analysis of employment-related class action litigation. Anyone who practices in this area, whether as a corporate counsel, a private 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.

The 2019 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 2018 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 continued to escalate over the past decade. Class actions often pose unique “bet-the-company” risks for employers. As has become readily apparent in the #MeToo era, 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 impair a corporation’s business operations, jeopardize or cut short the careers of senior management, and cost millions of dollars to defend. For these reasons, workplace class actions remain at the top of the list of challenges that keep business leaders up late at night with worries about compliance and litigation. 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 and government-backed lawsuits.

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 with the Trump Administration, governmental enforcement litigation pursued by the U.S. Equal Employment Commission (“EEOC”) and other federal agencies continued to manifest an aggressive agenda, with regulatory oversight of workplace issues continuing as a high priority. Conversely, litigation issues stemming from the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) reflected a slight pull-back from previous efforts to push a pronounced pro-worker/anti-business agenda. 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 2019 is the continuing evolution in federal policies emanating from the Trump White House, the recent appointments of new Supreme Court Justices, and mid-term elections placing the Senate in control of Republicans and the House in control of Democrats. Furthermore, while changes to government priorities started on the previous Inauguration Day and are on-going, others are being carried out by new leadership at the agency level who were appointed over 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 2018

An overview of workplace class action litigation developments in 2018 reveals five key trends. First, class action litigation has been shaped and influenced to a large degree 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 than in previous years – and as a result, has 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 terms. Among those rulings, Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 138 S. Ct. 1612 (2018) – which upheld the legality of class action waivers in mandatory arbitration agreements – is a transformative decision that is one of the most important workplace class action rulings in the last two decades. It is already having a profound impact on the prosecution and defense of workplace class action litigation, and in the long run, Epic Systems may well shift class action litigation dynamics in critical ways. Coupled with the appointments of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018, litigation may well be reshaped in ways that change the playbook for prosecuting and defending class actions.

Second, the plaintiffs’ bar was successful in prosecuting class certification motions at the highest rates ever as compared to previous years in the areas of ERISA and wage & hour litigation, while suffering significant defeats in employment discrimination litigation. While evolving case law precedents and new defense approaches resulted in good outcomes for employers in opposing class certification requests, federal and state courts issued many favorable class certification rulings for the plaintiffs’ bar in 2018. 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 wage & hour and ERISA class actions, the plaintiffs’ bar scored exceedingly well in securing class certification rulings in federal courts in 2018 (over comparative figures for 2017). Class actions were certified in significantly higher 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. Furthermore, the sheer volume of wage & hour certification decisions in 2018 increased as compared to last year, and plaintiffs fared better in litigating those class certification motions in federal court than in the prior year. Of the 273 wage & hour certification decisions in 2018, plaintiffs won 196 of 248 conditional certification rulings (approximately 79%), and lost only 13 of 25 decertification rulings (approximately 52%). By comparison, there were 257 wage & hour certification decisions in 2017, where plaintiffs won 170 of 233 conditional certification rulings (approximately 73%) and lost 15 of 24 decertification rulings (approximately 63%). In sum, employers lost more first stage conditional certification motions in 2018, and saw a reduction of their odds – a decrease of 11% – of fracturing cases with successful decertification motions.

Third, filings and settlements of government enforcement litigation in 2018 did not reflect a head-snapping pivot from the ideological pro-worker outlook of the Obama Administration to a pro-business, less regulation/litigation viewpoint of the Trump Administration. Instead, as compared to 2016 (the last year of the Obama Administration), government enforcement litigation actually increased in 2018. As an example, the EEOC alone brought 199 lawsuits in 2018 as compared to 184 lawsuits in 2017 and 86 lawsuits in 2016. However, the settlement value of the top ten settlements in government enforcement cases decreased dramatically – from $485.25 million in 2017 to $126.7 million in 2018. The explanations for this phenomenon are 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 2018. This is especially true at the EEOC, where the Trump nominations for the Commission’s Chair, two Commissioners, and its general counsel were stalled in the Senate waiting for votes of approval (or rejection), and one of the two nominees withdrew at year-end due to the delay. These factors are 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 2019 opens, it appears that the content and scope of enforcement litigation undertaken by the DOL and the EEOC in the Trump Administration will continue to tilt away from the pro-employee/anti-big business mindset of the previous Administration. Trump appointees at the EEOC and the DOL 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 2019.

Fourth, the monetary value of the top workplace class action settlements decreased dramatically in 2018. These settlement numbers had been increasing on an annual basis over the past decade, and reached all-time highs in 2017. While the plaintiffs’ employment class action bar and governmental enforcement litigators were exceedingly successful in monetizing their case filings into large class-wide settlements this past year, they did so at decidedly lower values in 2018 than in previous years. The top ten settlements in various employment-related class action categories totaled $1.32 billion in 2018, a decrease of over $1.4 billion from $2.72 billion in 2017 and a decrease of $430 million from $1.75 billion in 2016. Furthermore, settlements of wage & hour class actions experienced over a 50% decrease in value (from $525 million in 2017 down to $253 million in 2018); ERISA class actions saw nearly a three-fold decrease (from $927 million in 2017 down to $313.4 million in 2018); and government enforcement litigation registered nearly a fourfold decrease (from $485.2 million in 2017 down to $126.7 million in 2018). Whether this is the beginning of a long-range trend or a short-term aberration remains to be seen as 2019 unfolds.

Fifth, as it continues to gain momentum on a worldwide basis, the #MeToo movement is fueling employment litigation issues in general and workplace class action litigation in particular. On account of new reports and social media, it has raised the level of awareness of workplace rights and emboldened many to utilize the judicial system to vindicate those rights. Several large sex harassment class-based settlements were effectuated in 2018 that stemmed at least in part from #MeToo initiatives. Likewise, the EEOC’s enforcement litigation activity in 2018 focused on the filing of #MeToo lawsuits while riding the wave of social media attention to such workplace issues; in fact, fully 74% of the EEOC’s Title VII filings this past year targeted sex-based discrimination (compared to 2017, where sex based-discrimination claims accounted for 65% of Title VII filings). Of the EEOC’s 2018 sex discrimination lawsuit filings, 41 filings included claims of sexual harassment. The total number of sexual harassment filings increased notably as compared to 2017, where sexual harassment claims accounted for 33 filings. Employers can expect more of the same in the coming year.

Implications For Employers

The one constant in workplace class action litigation is change. More than any other year in recent memory, 2018 was a year of great change in the landscape of Rule 23. As these issues play out in 2019, additional chapters in the class action playbook will be written.

The lesson to draw from 2018 is that the private plaintiffs’ bar and government enforcement attorneys at the state level are apt to be equally, if not more, aggressive in 2019 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 2019.

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!

washington-monument-754745_960_720Seyfarth Synopsis: Governmental enforcement litigation was a mixed bag in 2016. The U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) continued their aggressive enforcement programs, but their effectiveness was down “by the numbers” as compared to previous years. What does this mean for 2017?  In the 6th and final installment in our series of blog postings on workplace class action trends, we examine what employers are likely to see in 2017 on the government enforcement litigation front.

Introduction

Government enforcement lawsuits brought by the DOL and EEOC continued the aggressive litigation programs of both agencies, but by sheer numbers of cases, their enforcement activities were arguably limited in their effectiveness, at least when measured by lawsuit filings and recoveries compared to previous years. Settlement numbers for government enforcement litigation in 2016 decreased substantially as compared to 2015, as did the litigation dockets of the DOL and the EEOC. This trends is aptly illustrated by a comparison of settlement recoveries over the past 7 years. Settlement recoveries in 2016 were the second lowest of any year during that period.

Top 10 Government Enforcement

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. The content and scope of enforcement litigation undertaken by the DOL and the EEOC in the Trump Administration remains to be seen; most believe there will be wholesale changes, which may well prompt the private plaintiffs’ class action bar to “fill the void” and expand the volume of litigation pursued against employers over the coming year.

Governmental Enforcement Litigation Trends In 2016

On the governmental enforcement front, both the EEOC and the DOL intensified the focus of their administrative enforcement activities and litigation filings in 2016.  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 – were less than half of what the EEOC and DOL achieved in 2015.

The EEOC’s lawsuit count dropped precipitously. 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 less cases overall but more systemic lawsuits. This manifested the notion that the Commission’s limited budget and bandwidth are best deployed to matters where a systemic focus is most needed and the largest numbers of alleged victims are at issue.  As 2016 demonstrated, the EEOC’s prosecution of pattern or practice lawsuits is now 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 2016. These numbers are shown by the following chart:

EEOC Systemic Cases: Filed, Resolved, And On Active Docket
FY 2013 – 2016

Cases Filed

The Commission’s 2016 Annual Report also announced that it expects to continue the dramatic shift in the composition of its litigation docket from small individual cases to systemic pattern or practice lawsuits on behalf of larger groups of workers.  The EEOC’s FY 2016 Annual Report detailed the EEOC’s activities from October 1, 2015 to September 30, 2016.  The EEOC’s Report indicated that:

  • The Commission completed work on 273 systemic investigations in FY 2016, which resulted in 21 settlements or conciliation agreements that yielded a total recovery of $20.5 million for systemic claims; six of the settlements involved 50 alleged victims or more, and 13 settlements included 20 or more alleged victims. The FY 2016 recoveries represent a decrease of systemic recoveries in FY 2015 when the Commission netted $33 million based on resolution of systemic investigations.
  • The EEOC recovered $347.9 million for alleged victims of employment discrimination in FY 2016 through mediation, conciliation, and settlements. This represented a decrease of $10.4 million as compared to FY 2015, when the Commission garnered $356.6 million for its enforcement efforts.
  • For its lawsuits, the EEOC secured $58.3 million in recoveries in FY 2016.  This figure was down $7 million as compared to the FY 2015 recoveries of $65.3 million. However, the EEOC resolved fewer lawsuits than it did last year, and recovered less money from those cases.  Specifically, the EEOC resolved 139 lawsuits during FY 2016 for a total recovery of $52.2 million; by comparison, the EEOC resolved 155 lawsuits in FY 2015 for a total recovery of $65.3 million.
  • The EEOC filed only 86 lawsuits in 2016 (down significantly from the 139 lawsuits it filed in 2015), of which 31 were “multiple victim” lawsuits, with 18 cases involved claims of systemic discrimination on behalf of 20 or more workers, and 13 cases involved multiple alleged discrimination victims of up to 20 individuals.  The EEOC had 165 cases on its active lawsuit docket by year end (down from FY 2015, when it had 218 cases on its docket, of which 48% involved multiple aggrieved parties and 28.5% involved challenges to alleged systemic discrimination).  Overall, this represented increases in these categories in terms of the make-up of the Commission’s litigation being tilted more heavily toward systemic cases.
  • The EEOC also received 91,503 administrative charges of discrimination, which was slightly up from the FY 2015 total of 89,385 charges and the FY 2014 total of 88,778 charges. Thus, charge activity was one of the heaviest in the 52 year history of the Commission.
  • The EEOC also encountered significant criticism in the manner in which it enforced anti-discrimination laws.  This criticism took various forms in terms of judicial sanctions, suits against the Commission by private litigants and States, and questioning by Congress over the EEOC’s alleged lack of transparency.

While the inevitable by-product of these governmental enforcement efforts is that employers are likely to face bigger lawsuits on behalf of larger groups of workers in 2017, the EEOC’s systemic litigation program is not without its detractors.  Several federal judges entered significant sanctions against the EEOC – some in excess of seven figures – for its pursuit of pattern or practice cases that were deemed to be without a good faith basis in fact or law. The U.S. Supreme Court in EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc., 136 S. Ct. 1642 (2016), examined the propriety of the $4.7 million fee sanction, the largest fee sanction ever leveled against the Commission; while the EEOC had been successful in its initial appeal in reversing the sanction before the Eighth Circuit, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the EEOC’s position, remanded the fee sanction issue for review, and gave new life to the employer’s efforts to recoup millions of dollars against the Commission.

Fiscal year 2016 also marked another year in the EEOC’s 2012-2016 Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”).  The SEP was created in 2012 as a blueprint to guide the EEOC’s enforcement activity.  Its most controversial and perhaps most far-reaching effect on the agency’s activity is the priority it gives to systemic cases: those pattern or practice, policy, or class-like cases where the alleged discrimination has a broad impact on an industry, profession, company, or geographic area.  Systemic cases have been the main driver of EEOC litigation over the past few years, and likely will be well into the future.  The EEOC is now fighting challenges to its power to bring those cases on a number of fronts.  Among other things, it is aggressively challenging any court’s ability to review how it conducts certain statutorily-mandated procedures before bringing suit, including how it investigates its cases and tries to conciliate those cases with employers.  If successful in those efforts, the EEOC will have greatly eased its path to pursuing systemic cases.

The EEOC is not only expanding its reach in procedural terms, but also it is attempting to broaden the scope of its authority through an expansion of the scope of anti-discrimination laws themselves.  In a number of recent cases, the EEOC has advanced novel legal theories that would, among other things, expand anti-discrimination protections to cover transgender employees and require employers to reasonably accommodate pregnant employees, even those who are experiencing normal pregnancies.  The EEOC continued to push the edge of the legal envelope in 2016, viewing itself as an agency that not only enforces the law, but also one that expands the scope of those laws as it deems appropriate.

For this and other reasons, the agency has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism by Republican members of Congress, business groups, and critics of an allegedly activist agency wasting the taxpayers’ dollars.  Such criticism is unlikely to stem the tide of systemic cases or deter the EEOC from continuing to try to expand its enforcement powers.  Subject to policy-directed changes mandated by the Trump Administration, employers can expect the EEOC will use the next year to continue to push for expansion of its procedural and substantive limits.

The DOL also undertook aggressive enforcement activities in 2016.

The Wage & Hour Division (“WHD”) kept up its aggressive enforcement actions in 2016, particularly in the hotel, restaurant, and retail industries.  Much of 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, WHD continued to increase its use of civil money penalties, liquidated damages, and enhanced compliance agreements.

Legislatures and government agencies in various states and municipalities also increased their activities on the wage & hour front.  Whether increasing the minimum or living wage, enacting scheduling laws and ordinances, implementing wage theft prohibitions, or increasing the minimum salary level required for exemption, many have already revised or are actively planning to revise laws and rules governing how businesses pay employees in 2017.

With the approaching ten-year anniversary of the last time Congress enacted a minimum wage increase (2007), advocates of a minimum wage increase are likely to turn up the volume on their requests for an increase to the federal minimum wage in 2017.  This may well depend on the politics of the debate, for the incoming Republican Administration appears opposed to such an increase.

Finally, if history is a guide, the incoming Administration is likely to return to the decades-old practice of issuing opinion letters in response to specific requests, which had been abandoned by the Obama Administration’s decision-makers at the DOL.

Over the past several years, the DOL’s Wage & Hour Division (“WHD”) fundamentally changed the way in which it pursues its investigations.  Suffice to say, the investigations are 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 $1.8 billion in back wages for over 2 million workers.  In FY 2016, the WHD collected more than $266.5 million in back pay wages, an increase of $20.5 million over the past year. Hence, in 2016, employers finally saw the impact of these changes on the WHD’s enforcement priorities, and 2017 is apt to bring much of the same absent a stark change in priorities under the Trump Administration.

The DOL also focused its activities in 2016 on wage & hour enforcement on what it terms “24/7.” The WHD’s Administrator, Dr. David Weil, was an architect of the WHD’s fissured industry initiative.  This initiative focuses on several priority industries, including food services (both limited service/full service establishments), hotel/motel, residential construction, janitorial services, moving companies/logistics providers, agricultural products, landscaping/horticultural services, healthcare services, home healthcare services, grocery stores, and retail trade.  In FY 2016, the WHD reported recoveries of $143,274,845 for nearly 19,000 workers within these fissured industries.

Not to be outdone, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) undertook an ambitious agenda in 2016 too.  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. More than any other area impacting workplace litigation, the NLRB also remained steadfast in its view that workplace arbitration agreements limiting class or collective claims are void under § 7 of the NLRA. It pursued a myriad of unfair labor practice charges against employers for alleged violation of the NLRA for use of arbitration agreements with class action and collective action waivers.

Implications For Employers In 2017?

So what are employers likely to see in 2017 on the government enforcement litigation front? In the early days of the Trump Administration, clear direction on litigation policy remain unclear. Most pundits believe that employers can expect less litigation and less regulation than during the Obama Administration. Furthermore, the phenomenon of “regulation by enforcement litigation” is likely no longer the by-product of the DOL and the EEOC’s enforcement litigation programs. Most likely, control of agency budgets may well provide the lever that the Trump White House may use to force its policy choices upon the government enforcement litigation programs of the DOL and the EEOC.

thCATMS9YBBy Gerald L. Maatman Jr. and Howard M. Wexler

As we previously blogged about, most recently here and here, the EEOC has gone on the offensive challenging employer severance agreements. In one such case, the EEOC attacked CVS Pharmacy Inc.’s standard release agreement which contained terms more expansive in favor of employees than the EEOC’s own interpretive guidance, and agreements held enforceable by in key court decisions.  The EEOC’s case against CVS was eventually dismissed on procedural grounds because the EEOC had not met its obligation to conciliate the claims filed in that case, so failed to provide additional guidance on the EEOC’s aggressive theories.

The EEOC appealed its well-publicized defeat in the CVS case and on December 17, 2015 the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Seventh Circuit issued yet another stinging rebuke of the EEOC’s “shoot first aim later” litigation tactics and rejected the EEOC’s appeal.

Case Background

In its Complaint, the EEOC alleged that certain provisions of CVS’s standard severance agreement violated Title VII because they interfere with an employee’s right to file charges, communicate voluntarily with the EEOC and other state agencies, and participate in agency investigations.  Id. at 3.  The case arose out of a former CVS pharmacy manager who was discharged in July 2011. Id. at 2.  She filed a charge with the EEOC, alleging that CVS terminated her due to her sex and race.  Id.  On June 13, 2013, the EEOC dismissed the charge, but it then sent CVS a letter saying that it had reasonable cause to believe that CVS was engaged in a pattern or practice of resistance to the full employment of rights secured by Title VII by virtue of the severance agreements that the charging party and others signed at their terminations. Id. at 4. Specifically, the EEOC claimed that the agreement deterred the filing of charges and interfered with the employee’s ability to communicate voluntarily with the EEOC and other federal and state agencies.   Id.

The District Court dismissed the EEOC’s case on purely procedural grounds, as it was undisputed that the EEOC did not engage in any effort to conciliate prior to bringing suit. Id. at 6. The EEOC argued that it was not required to engage in conciliation procedures because it was not bringing a garden-variety pattern or practice claim under section 707(e), but rather was alleging a pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of rights created by Title VII.  Id.  That “resistance” claim was brought under section 707(a), which does not mandate the same pre-suit procedures as are required under section 707(e).  Id.

Seventh Circuit’s Decision

On appeal, the EEOC alleged that the District Court “got it wrong” because: (1) Section 707(a) authorizes the agency to bring actions challenging a “pattern or practice of resistance” to the full enjoyment of Title VII rights without following any of the pre‐suit procedures contained in Section 706, including conciliation; (2) CVS’s use of a severance agreement that could chill terminated employees from filing charges or participating in EEOC proceedings constitutes a “pattern or practice of resistance” for purposes of Section 707(a); and (3) a reasonable jury could conclude that the Agreement deterred signatories from filing charges with the EEOC because of its length, small font, and the fact that it is drafted in “legalese,” thus making summary judgment for CVS improper.  Id. at 7.  The Seventh Circuit summarily rejected the EEOC’s first argument, and therefore, did not address the additional grounds set forth by the EEOC in support of its appeal.

With respect to the Commission’s contention that it was not required to engage in any pre-suit procedures, the Seventh Circuit rejected “the EEOC’s … novel interpretation of its powers under Section 707(a) that extends beyond the pursuit of unlawful unemployment practices involving discrimination and retaliation, and that frees the EEOC from engaging in informal methods of dispute resolution as a prerequisite to litigation,” as it   “cites to no case law….nor has any case been found that supports the distinction between the two sections as argued by the EEOC.”  Id. at 11.

Moreover, because the Seventh Circuit found no difference between a suit challenging a “pattern or practice of resistance” under Section 707(a) and a “pattern or practice of discrimination” under Section 707(e), it reasoned that the EEOC must comply with all of the pre‐suit procedures contained in Section 706, including conciliation.  Id. at 12.  As the Seventh Circuit noted, “[i]f we were to adopt the EEOC’s interpretation of Section 707(a), the EEOC would never be required to engage in conciliation before filing a suit because it could always contend that it was acting pursuant to its broader power under Section 707(a). In other words, the EEOC’s position reads the conciliation requirement out of the statute.”  Id. at 14-15.

Implications For Employers

While this stinging defeat for the EEOC in its attempt to attack carefully drafted severance agreements in line with the EEOC’s own interpretive guidance, employers are nonetheless well advised to review their separation agreement terms at issue in this case. While CVS may have won the battle for now,  the EEOC appears to be ready for war and focused on continuing to litigate terms of individual and/or form separation agreements. In doing so, the EEOC’s position attempts to alter existing case law authority governing terms of severance agreements, regardless of the Agency’s own guidance and leading case law interpreting such terms.

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

Magnifying_Glass_PhotoBy Gerald L. Maatman Jr. and Christina M. Janice

In an order recently issued in EEOC v J.R. Baker Farms, LLC, et al., Case No. 7:14-CV-136 (M.D. Ga. Sept. 9, 2015), Senior Judge Hugh Lawson  of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia compelled the EEOC to produce in discovery anecdotal claims information for each known “class member” in a pattern or practice lawsuit (while not a class action governed by Rule 23, allegedly injured parties for whom the EEOC sues in a pattern or practice case are often referred to as “class members,” as in this order by Judge Lawson). The Court also denied the EEOC’s motions to quash or grant protective relief regarding the depositions of its lead investigator and a Rule 30(b)(6) witness.

The order is a case study for defense initiatives to take the fight to the EEOC in high-stakes workplace litigation.

Case Background

In August 2014 the EEOC brought a pattern or practice lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against a Georgia-based farm J & R Baker Farms LLC and J & R Farms Partnership. The suit alleged that Defendants engaged in systemic race and national origin discrimination by providing greater opportunities for training and work hours to foreign-born workers, while involuntarily terminating or causing the constructive discharge of a disproportionate number of American and, specifically, African-American workers.

In discovery, Defendants sought to compel the EEOC to provide comprehensive responses to interrogatories requesting that the EEOC specify – for each class member – certain claim information, including whether each class member was a victim of an involuntary termination or constructive discharge. Id. The EEOC objected to the discovery requests as both exceeding the scope of discovery in a pattern or practice litigation largely to be proved through statistical data, and seeking privileged information. Id.

Defendants also issued a notice of deposition to the EEOC’s investigator, Jennifer Vanairsdale, who led the interviews of complaining and intervening parties and also participated in a prior conciliation. The EEOC filed a motion to quash or alternatively a motion for protective order to block the deposition, arguing the deliberative process privilege. Id. Relying on the recent decision of the Supreme Court in Mach Mining LLC v. EEOC, 135 S. Ct. 1645, 1655 (2015), the EEOC also objected to the deposition to the extent the examination would include an impermissible inquiry into the conciliation process. Id. The EEOC further argued that the deposition was superfluous because the EEOC already had produced its complete investigatory file. Id.

The EEOC filed an additional motion to quash or alternatively motion for protective order seeking to bar Defendants’ notice of the Rule 30(b)(6) deposition, objecting on the basis that EEOC personnel did not have knowledge of the claims underlying the lawsuit and the notice arguably called for the deposition of its attorneys. Id.

The Court’s Decision

In granting Defendants’ motion to compel, the Court observed that it was “clear” that the EEOC had collected pertinent information from only a “very small percentage of the alleged class,” including 60 potential “class members” out of a class approximated at 2,000 workers. Id. The Court also observed that the EEOC’s lawsuit presented a “hybrid scenario” in which some the Commission asserted that some class members suffered  involuntary discharges while others were victims of a constructive discharge, and that the EEOC had developed and mailed to each potential class member a “detailed questionnaire” in order to develop its case. Id. Finding that Defendants sought only information contained in the completed questionnaires, and not the documents themselves, the Court determined that Defendants’ interrogatories were within the scope of permissible discovery and were not unduly burdensome. Id.

The Court also ordered the EEOC to provide lists of all known class members, whether their claim constituted a constructive discharge or an involuntary termination, and the date of discharge or termination. Id. The Court then went further by ordering the EEOC to provide “detailed anecdotal information for a representative portion of the class members,” which the Court found to be “at least 250 individuals.” Id.

The Court also denied the EEOC’s motion to quash or grant protective relief regarding the deposition of EEOC lead investigator Vanairsdale, cautioning Defendants “…not to venture into the territory of the adequacy of the conciliation process.” Id. The Court went on to deny the EEOC’s motion to quash or grant protective relief regarding Defendants’ notice for the Rule 30(b)(6) deposition, suggesting that the EEOC should notify Defendants if it has no witness meeting the criteria of the notice. Id.

Implications for Employers   

As the EEOC continues to assert deliberative privilege and Mach Mining as shields protecting it from discovery and judicial scrutiny, the order of the Court in EEOC v J.R. Baker Farms, LLC. demonstrates the importance of diligently pursuing discovery of claims underlying EEOC pattern or practice lawsuits. The Court not only ordered discovery to proceed, albeit with limitations, but also ordered the EEOC to provide detailed anecdotal information for a “representative portion” of the alleged class, quantified as 250 out of 2,000. Employers can use this order to support seeking both meaningful discovery and judicial intervention to obtain information critical to the defense of these costly and time consuming lawsuits.

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

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Laura Maechtlen

In a ruling on December 19, 2014, in EEOC v. Global Horizons, Inc., Case No. 11-CV-257 (D. Haw. Dec. 19, 2014), Judge Leslie Kobayashi of the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii entered a default judgment of $8.7 million in the EEOC’s favor against two essentially defunct businesses. While the Court entered the default without any opposition from the defaulted businesses, it is the biggest EEOC judgment of 2014. It brings to a close a chapter in a long and tortured history of litigation involving what the EEOC asserted was its pursuit of “human trafficking” discrimination claims (click here to read more).

Background To The Case

The EEOC brought claims against Defendant Global Horizons, Inc. (“Global Horizons”) and Maui Pineapple, Inc., among others, alleging a pattern or practice of unlawful discriminatory employment practices against foreign migrant workers based on their Asian race and/or Thai national original. The EEOC also asserted claims for harassment and hostile work environment, retaliation, and constructive discharge. The Asian and Thai workers were employed by Global Horizons under the U.S. Department of Labor H2‑A guest worker program to provide farm labor at various locations in California, Hawaii, and Washington. Previously, the Court entered a default judgment against Global Horizons and Maui Pineapple, Inc., as both elected to cease doing business. The Commission had sued other companies that had contracted with Global Horizons to supply workers to their farms and operations; those companies either secured dismissals of the EEOC’s claims against them and/or reached settlements with the EEOC.

Relative to its claims against Global Horizons and Maui Pineapple, the EEOC waived its demand for a jury trial, and the Court ordered the EEOC to file proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law relative to its request for damages and injunctive relief as to the two defaulted Defendants.  Based on that submission, the Court entered findings of fact and conclusions of law relative to the EEOC’s claims against Global Horizons and Maui Pineapple, Inc. on December 19 in a 77-page order.

The Court’s Ruling

The Court entered an award of compensatory damages of $50,000 each to every claimant based on the Defendants’ default and uncontested liability for the pattern or practice of discrimination, a hostile work environment, and retaliation relative to the claimants that Global Horizons brought to work in Hawaii. The Court concluded that the award of $50,000 per claimant was justified due to the egregious and pervasive nature of the discrimination at issue. In total, the Court entered this damages award with respect to 82 claimants represented by the EEOC. Further, the Court entered an award of $100,000 to each claimant for punitive damages based on the conduct at issue.  However, the Court rejected the EEOC’s arguments relative to damages.

The Court specifically rejected the EEOC’s argument that each claimant should receive a total of $300,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. The Court reasoned that “all of the claimants were subjected to deplorable conditions, but the Court notes that the records indicate that some claimants were subject to more brutal treatment than others … [and] the EEOC has chosen to seek damages based on generalized proof …, with anecdotal evidence of specific incidents and that evidence overall does not support the requested damages amounts.” Id. at 68. As a result, the Court entered a total damages award of $12.3 million against Global Horizons, and off-set that amount by $3.6 million (representing the total amount from previous settlements between the EEOC and various other Defendants), and entered a total monetary damages award for the 82 claimants in the amount $8.7 million. Id. at 70. Further, the Court found that Global Horizons and Maui Pineapple were jointly and severally liable to 54 of the claimants (representing the number of claimants who worked at Maui Pineapple’s facilities and who were supplied by Global Horizons), and that joint and several liability totaled $8.1 million.

Injunctive Relief Order

The Court also entered a range of injunctive relief against both Global Horizons and Maui Pineapple, including requirements: (i) to develop, implement, and effectively distribute to all employees a policy and complaint procedure with respect to discrimination and retaliation, and to translate the policies and procedures into the dominant language of the foreign-based employees in their workforce; (ii) to develop and implement a procedure regarding how to conduct, document, and report an investigation of discrimination; (iii) to establish annual, live training sessions for all supervisory employees regarding their rights, responsibilities, and obligations under their employer’s non-discrimination and investigation policy and procedure; (iv) to obligate all farm labor contractors engaged by the companies to agree to be accountable for Title VII compliance; (v) to establish and publicize an employee hotline regarding questions, concerns, or complaints pertaining to housing and working conditions; and (vi) to the extent the company engages recruiters, to require in contracts with recruiters that they comply with all policies and procedures regarding Title VII.  Id. at 71-76.

Implications For Employers

The judgment and injunctive relief may be worth little more than the paper it is written on at this point, since enforcement of the judgment may be impossible. As neither business is a going concern, the injunctive relief is also likely to have no effect. Nonetheless, despite the Court’s rejection of the EEOC’s damages requests, its entry of a monetary award in favor of the Commission is apt to serve as a future set of bargaining demands by the EEOC when it sits at the settlement table and asserts how much money it demands to settle like or similar claims.

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

By Gerald L. Maatman Jr. and Howard M. Wexler

In the closely watched case of EEOC v. BMW Manufacturing Co., LLC, 13-CV-1583 (D.S.C.), which concerns the EEOC’s “Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Under Title VII (most recently discussed here, the parties have waged a discovery battle over whether the EEOC should be forced to respond to discovery concerning its own use of criminal background checks and credit histories during the hiring practices.  Although the EEOC won the initial battle when a Magistrate Judge held that the it did not have to produce this evidence, the dust has settled and BMW has won the war. In a ruling of December 8, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Henry M. Herlong Jr. ordered the EEOC to produce “all documents that constitute, contain, describe, reflect, mention, or refer or relate to any policy, guideline, standard, or practice utilized by the EEOC in accessing the criminal conviction record of applicants for employment with the EEOC.” EEOC v. BMW Manufacturing Co., LLC, 13-CV-1583, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169849, at *4 (D.S.C. Dec. 2, 2014).

This decision represents a big win for BMW as well as all employers staring down the barrel of the EEOC’s “do as we say, not as we do” enforcement policies.

Case Background

The EEOC filed suit against BMW alleging that “its criminal conviction background check policy constitutes an unlawful employment practice in violation of…Title VII…because BMW’s policy had, and continues to have, a significant disparate impact on black employees and applicants and is not job-related and consistent with business necessity.” Id. at *1. This case is one of a handful of systemic cases that the EEOC has filed in recent years over employers use of background check policies.  The EEOC has suffered several resounding defeats in their pursuit of this initiative, including the landmark case against Kaplan Higher Education Corp. (most recently discussed here) where the Sixth Circuit upbraided the EEOC for the “homemade” methodology that the agency used to determine race in that case – namely, by asking “race raters” to assign race based on drivers’ license photographs – concluding that it was “crafted by a witness with no particular expertise to craft it, administered by persons with no particular expertise to administer it, tested by no one, and accepted only by the witness himself.”

The Court’s Decision

Upon the Magistrate Judge’s denial of its motion to compel, BMW filed Rule 72 objections with Judge Herlong requesting that he overrule the Magistrate Judge’s decision given the relevance of the requested information. Id. at *1. The Magistrate Judge denied BMW’s request because “considering the burdens of proof in a disparate impact case and in light of BMW’s motion to compel, BMW has failed to explain how production of the EEOC’s convictions policy contributes to its ability to prove that BMW’s criminal conviction policy at issue is job-related and/or is consistent with a stated business necessity.” Id. at *2-3.

Judge Herlong disagreed with the Magistrate Judge’s reasoning, instead finding that the EEOC had the burden of establishing “why its objections are proper given the broad and liberal construction of the federal rules” and that it failed to meet this burden. Id. at *3. Although Judge Herlong noted that the EEOC based its argument on the fact that its own policies are not relevant because “the positions for which the EEOC utilized its policy were not similar to the positions at issue in this litigation,” he held that BMW is not simply required to sit back and “accept the EEOC’s position” without discovery as to its policies or information concerning the positions for which they are used. Id. Accordingly, Judge Herlong ordered the EEOC to produce the requested information since “this production should not be burdensome to the EEOC, and the Court can perceive no harm to the EEOC in producing its internal policies.” Id.

Implications For Employers

This decision represents a big win for employers given the EEOC’s general reluctance to allow a “look behind the curtain.” This is not a surprise since in affirming dismissal of the EEOC’s case against Kaplan, the Sixth Circuit honed in on the fact that the EEOC had initiated a pattern or practice lawsuit against an employer for using “the same type of background check that the EEOC itself uses.” This is yet another decision that highlights the fact that simply because the EEOC says certain information is not relevant does not make it so. Employers should be able to put this ruling to good use for current and future discovery battles with the EEOC.

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

By 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 2015 Report to our readers from our Blog.

This will be our Eleventh Annual Report, and the biggest yet with analysis of over 1,300 class certification rulings from federal and state courts in 2014. 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 2015 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 2014 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 2015 Report will be available on our blog in early January. Happy Holidays!

By Christopher DeGroff, Paul Kehoe and Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Employers have become accustomed to the federal courts rubber stamping EEOC subpoenas seeking company-wide information based on a single charge of discrimination. In light of the EEOC’s systemic focus — and the agency’s desire to transform single allegations into a blockbuster systemic actions — aggressive and extensive EEOC subpoenas requests are more and more prevalent, with very little case law authority to cabin the EEOC’s authority. The Court in EEOC v. Forge Industrial Staffing Inc., No. 14-MC-90 (S. D. Ind. Nov. 24, 2014), however, had enough of the EEOC’s strong-arm tactics. In rejecting the Commission’s broad subpoena, Magistrate Judge Mark Dinsmore authored an opinion that provides employers with ammunition to fight “everything and the kitchen sink…” subpoena requests.

Factual Background

In EEOC v. Forge Industrial Staffing Inc., a former employee filed an EEOC charge four months after her termination alleging sexual harassment and retaliation. The Commission sought extensive information from the company as part of its administrative investigation. In its subpoena, the EEOC requested all employment applications for roughly a two and a half year period because the applications purportedly required employees to agree to file all employment-related claims within six months of the event, except as prohibited by law. The EEOC views this provision as an impermissible waiver of an applicant’s statutory rights. The company argued that the requested information was irrelevant to the charge and complying with it would be unduly burdensome.

The Court’s Decision

At the hearing, the EEOC argued that the application waiver related to the “overall conditions of the workplace.” Id. at 5. The Court rejected the EEOC’s position for several reasons. First, the charge did not contain pattern or practice allegations – claims that would suggest a pervasive violation of the law. Second, the charging party filed the charge within four months of the termination, meaning the clause had no impact on her willingness to file a charge. As a result, the waiver could not be relevant to the charge under investigation. The Court recognized that accepting the “overall condition of the workplace” argument would eviscerate the meaning of “relevance” because it would allow the EEOC to subpoena any information about a company at the EEOC’s whim. Id. at 5-6.

Finally, the Court rejected the EEOC’s standard argument that it has a broad mandate to promote the public interest, and therefore, can seek to remedy violations not alleged in a charge. Based on a plain reading of Title VII, which requires relevance to the charge under investigation, the Court reasoned that the EEOC could not expand a single charge into a pattern or practice case with wholly different allegations. The Court noted that the plain language of the statute does not permit an investigation into an violation not alleged in the charge.

Implications For Employers

The ruling in EEOC v. Forge Industrial Staffing Inc. marks the second time in a month that courts have limited the EEOC’s subpoena enforcement authority (see our blog posting here on the recent Eleventh Circuit’s defense ruling on an EEOC subpoena). Although many federal courts continue to grant the EEOC significant deference in subpoena matters, these recent decisions provide a glimmer of hope. Just because the EEOC says information is relevant does not make it so. When confronted with an expanded investigation based on a single charge, without pattern or practice allegations, there is a solid, common sense argument for employers to challenge the subpoena on both relevance and timeliness grounds. Employers should be aware of this and other recent decisions limiting the EEOC’s subpoena authority.

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