I first wrote about this case a couple of years ago. See my prior post about EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc. It struck me as a good case, but the court parsed the evidence to make it seem like a weak case. Too, the court rejected the view that certain “lead” drivers could constitute managers. If those lead drivers were not managers, then the employer would not be liable for sexual harassment. In any event, the EEOC lost. In that appeal, the court of appeals did vacate the award of attorney’s fees. The higher court found that the employer did not prevail on any issue. A party must be a “prevailing” party to be entitled to attorney’s fees.
Well, the case apparently got worse for the EEOC, because the district court assessed $4.6 million in attorney’s fees, again. The EEOC did settle one case for one plaintiff for $50,000. But, what had been intended as a class action of some 107 women resulted in just that, one settlement. In this most recent appeal, the Eighth Circuit did find that the EEOC had advanced claims on behalf of more than one plaintiff. The EEOC tried to argue that it had withdrawn such claims. The Eighth Circuit did not accept that argument.
The defendant also claimed that when the district court dismissed claims based on “pattern and practice” of discrimination, then that ruling made the defendant a prevailing party. No, said the higher court. The EEOC did not allege a “pattern or practice” lawsuit. The lower court assumed the EEOC had alleged a pattern or practice lawsuit without making any actual finding.
Regarding 67 claims that were dismissed by the court, the employer claimed those dismissals entitled it to be a prevailing party. The EEOC, however, responded that those claims were dismissed because the EEOC did not satisfy pre-lawsuit requirements. So, those 67 claims do not count as a victory for the defendant. Those dismissals were not a ruling on the merits, said the agency.
Does that failure to conciliate charges constitute a jurisdictional issue or are they an element or part of the claims of the lawsuit? The court found those conciliation requirements constitute non-jurisdictional pre-conditions for a lawsuit. They are not elements of a Title VII claim. So, the dismissal of those 67 claims was not a ruling on the merits. And, the district court’s award of $4.6 million in attorney’s fees is reversed. CRST was not a prevailing party. The appellate court also explained that lower court’s should resist the temptation to believe that if a plaintiff loses, then his claims were always weak or without foundation. The law or facts can change during a lawsuit. That is certainly true in this matter. The legal question regarding whether the conciliation requirement is jurisdictional or not is a novel issue. It was addressed in this very lawsuit. So, yes, the law has indeed changed since this lawsuit was filed.
Seethe decision here.