The EEOC may be ordered to pay over $4 million in attorney’s fees to a trucking company it accused of sexually harassing 270 women according to the US Supreme Court.
An individual initially filed a charge of discrimination against the trucking company, alleging that two male trainers subjected her to sexual harassment. After investigation, however, the EEOC filed a suit on behalf of 270 women in the US District Court of Iowa.
The employer filed a motion to dismiss, alleging, among other things, that the EEOC failed to conciliate the claims of some of the women, that the statute of limitations had run on other claims, and that the EEOC failed to make nearly 100 of the women available for a deposition. The District Court granted the employer’s motion to dismiss as to each claim and awarded the employer over $4 million in attorney’s fees. The EEOC filed an appeal in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and was victorious as to two of the claims. The 8th Circuit also vacated the district court’s award of attorney’s fees.
The matter was remanded to district court. The parties ended up settling, and the district court once again awarded attorney’s fees to the employer. However, on appeal the 8th Circuit once again reversed the District Court holding that a party is not the “prevailing party” and entitled to attorney’s fees under Title VII where there was not a ruling on the merits.
The matter went before the US Supreme Court, which reversed the 8th Circuit’s ruling and delivered a unanimous opinion: a favorable judgment on the merits is not a prerequisite to determining whether a party was a prevailing party. The Court reasoned that defending a Title VII claim, even on procedural grounds, can be costly to defendant/employers and that requiring defendant/employers to litigate such a case on the merits to receive attorney’s fees would go against Congressional intent.
Under the Court’s ruling, a defendant is eligible to recover attorney’s fees under Title VII where a plaintiff’s claim was “frivolous, unreasonable or groundless” – regardless of whether the matter was disposed on the merits – so long as the defendant is determined to be the prevailing party. The Court did not provide further clarity on what is necessary for a party to be a prevailing party.
The final award has yet to be determined; however, the decision is ultimately a welcome one for employers who wish to avoid pursuing costly litigation for the chance of an award of attorney’s fees. The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others. As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.