Under federal civil rights laws, both the aggrieved party and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have independent claims against the employer for redress. When the EEOC sues on behalf of an employee, that individual often intervenes in the agency’s claim to assert additional claims for relief. What happens however, when the EEOC suit is preceded by an unsuccessful effort by the employees to sue on their own? This situation was presented in a decision last week by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in a sexual harassment suit brought against a Texas dental clinic by the EEOC. Prior to the suit, the individual plaintiffs sued the employer unsuccessfully raising personal injury, or tort claims based on the same facts. The employer claimed that the EEOC attorneys closely worked with the plaintiffs during their suit, assisting them and attending the trial. The employer then moved to dismiss the EEOC’s suit, alleging that these claims had already been heard and rejected in the earlier suit.
The Fifth Circuit rejected the employer’s argument, finding that there was insufficient privity between the employees and the EEOC in the earlier suit to preclude the agency’s later claims. While defendants cannot be subject to multiple trials on the same facts, in this case, the EEOC’s participation in the earlier trial was informal, and did not establish evidence of control over the proceedings. Under Title VII, the EEOC has independent statutory authority to pursue alleged violations of civil rights laws. This public policy precludes a finding that the EEOC’s and individual employees’ interests are identical, and that the EEOC should be bound by the earlier decision. However, the court did refuse to allow the employees to intervene in the case, or to recover any relief beyond that sought by the EEOC. This case follows a recent line of federal court decisions refusing to tie the EEOC’s hands in enforcing federal civil rights laws, regardless of the prior acts or agreements of the individual employee.