Monday, March 31, 2014
There have been a number of relatively high profile cases lately, penalizing the EEOC in some way for its investigation or pursuit of a lawsuit. The decision in Mach Mining, the importance of which is discussed here, overturned one trial court's decision in this vein of cases. The most recent installment comes from the Fourth Circuit and involves attorneys fees.
In EEOC v. Propak Logistics, Inc., the EEOC had appealed a decision by the trial court that awarded the defendant attorneys fees after the court had dismissed the EEOC's action on the ground of laches. On appeal, the EEOC made two arguments: 1) that it would be unjust to award attorneys fees incurred in making a laches defense because such a defense is not available in an action brought by a federal agency; and 2) the district court improperly relied on its prior laches defense ruling and made erroneous factual findings related to the award. The court of appeals rejected both of these arguments. The court first refused to consider the argument that laches could not be used against a federal agency, holding that the EEOC had waived that argument by dismissing its appeal of the summary judgment. The court of appeals also rejected the second argument, ruling that the district court had relied on grounds separate from the laches defense in awarding fees and that its factual findings were not clearly erroneous.
The EEOC had brought this action against Propak Logistics, alleging that the company had discriminated in hiring against a class of non-Hispanics on the basis of race or national origin. The action came five and a half years after the initial charge had been filed with the EEOC, during which there had been long periods of inactivity, and after the company had closed the two locations at issue in the complaint. Relying on the standard articulated by the Supreme Court in Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412 (1978), the court of appeals held that the decision to file this class claim was unreasonable because at the time it was filed, the EEOC had not identified individual class members and the relief requested could not be granted--the claim was moot.
Of particular note is the concurring opinion by Judge Wilkinson. Acknowledging that the EEOC is subject to a significant burden, given its administrative load and lack of resources, Judge Wilkinson noted that Congress and the Supreme Court had not exempted it from fees or created a standard different from that applicable to private parties. In fact, the power of the government and the costs to small and medium-sized businesses of complying with investigations and defending lawsuits along with the costs of delays to individuals injured by discrimination justified this treatment as a way to promote efficient agency action. Justice Wilkinson concluded by observing,
The story of this litigation is regrettable because the EEOC provides primary recourse to those victims of discrimination that persists in our society to an unfortunate extent. The reference to statutory goals and missions, however, cannot be divorced from the manner in which those purposes are implemented. . . . Surely [the delay and its consequences as acknowledged by the EEOC ] is not and must not become the norm. It is not far-fetched to believe that the nation’s deep commitment to combatting discrimination will be affected for good or ill by the esteem in which this important agency is held.
Interesting and thoughtful decision.
h/t Jonathan Harkavy