EEOC Dodges Massive Fee Bill for Failure to Conciliate

DiscriminationOn December 22, 2014, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed an order that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission pay nearly $5 million in attorneys’ fees and costs for its failure to engage in conciliation before filing a lawsuit against a national trucking company. EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc. (8th Cir. 2014).

In 2012, the court affirmed summary judgment in favor of CRST on the vast majority of claims relating to 67 female drivers who alleged harassment during new-driver training programs.

After the award of summary judgment in CRST’s favor, the District Court for the Northern District of Iowa granted the company’s motion ordering the EEOC to pay it $4.7 million in attorneys’ fees, costs, and related expenses.

Last month, however, the Eighth Circuit reversed, holding that such an award could only stand where summary judgment was a ruling on the merits, involving the actual elements of a sexual harassment claim. Because conciliation is a pre-suit requirement, and not an actual element of a sexual harassment claim, fees were not appropriate, the court wrote.

Acknowledging that fees are commonly available to a plaintiff in Title VII cases, the court said a defendant is entitled to such an award only where the claims are “frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless.” The likelihood of having to pay a current or former employee’s attorneys’ fees in such a case is a powerful reason for employers to ensure strict legal compliance in 2015 and beyond.