It's been a good week in court for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, with agency lawyers racking up wins in two proceedings involving cases of systemic discrimination, a top priority under the EEOC's new strategic enforcement plan.
On January 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit made final its decision to remand the EEOC's case against Cintas Corp., reversing the district court judge and ruling there was "no basis" to require the agency to pay $2.6 million in attorney fees. The ruling revives the EEOC's sex discrimination case against Cintas.
The decision comes on the heels of one issued a week ago, when a district court in Illinois reversed its own ruling in the EEOC's case against United Parcel Service, allowing the agency to file a class complaint without complete information on all possible bias victims.
EEOC General Counsel David Lopez in a news release called the pair of decisions a "tremendous victory for the EEOC's systemic litigation program."
The case against Cincinnati-based Cintas, which supplies business uniforms to 800,000 clients, began in 2005 when the EEOC sued the company in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, alleging that it discriminated against women in hiring for sales representative positions.
The EEOC sued under Section 706 of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, its bread-and-butter statute for bringing discrimination claims, rather than Section 707, which addresses cases where there is a "pattern or practice" of discrimination. The two statutes are similar, but 707 but does not allow compensatory or punitive damages.
District Court Judge Sean Cox agreed with Cintas that the EEOC failed to state a claim for pattern-or-practice discrimination because it brought the suit under Section 706 instead of 707. The court also ruled that the EEOC could not use the so-called Teamsters proof framework. As the EEOC explains, this matters because it "allows the focus at the initial stages of litigation to be placed on whether discrimination was the employer's 'standard operating procedure,' rather than on whether the employer committed individual acts of discrimination."
Cox later denied the EEOC's motions to expand discovery and to depose the Cintas CEO, and ultimately dismissed the EEOC's entire case for failing to properly investigate and conciliate the claims. He went on to order the EEOC to pay $2.6 million in attorney fees to Cintas' counsel, Keating, Muething & Klekamp, citing the EEOC's "egregious and unreasonable" conduct.
The Sixth Circuit in a 2 to 1 November decision reversed Cox across the board. The panel found that the EEOC "pursued its claim within the bounds of professional conduct and in the good-faith belief that it had done what was necessary to satisfy its administrative prerequisites" and said the award of fees was an abuse of discretion.
As for whether the EEOC brought the case under the proper statute, the court of appeals found that "the exclusion of pattern-or-practice language from Section 706 does not mean that the EEOC may utilize a pattern-or-practice theory only when bringing suit under Section 707," and that the EEOC may use the Teamsters proof framework.
Cintas asked the court to reconsider its ruling. In a one-page order, the court on Tuesday said no. According to the EEOC, the order indicated that no judge had requested a vote to hear the case en banc.
The EEOC in the past week got good news in its case against UPS as well. The EEOC sued UPS in 2009 in Illinois federal court, alleging the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by allowing disabled employees only 12-month leaves of absence and failing to reasonably accommodate their disabilities.
UPS protested that the EEOC, which only named two employees in the suit, did not provide enough information about the unidentified workers for whom it was also seeking relief. Judge Robert Dow agreed and dismissed the complaint, as well as the EEOC's two subsequent amended complaints.
But when EEOC filed a motion asking to appeal the dismissal, Dow on January 11 withdrew his earlier rulings and granted the EEOC's motion to file its second amended complaint, writing that the complaint had in fact offered "detailed factual allegations as to how the policy affected two employees…and alleges that the same policy was applied across the board to other employees."