In 2007, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against a trucking company, alleging a pattern and practice of sexual harassment affecting a class of 270 female employees. The district court dismissed the complaint, and awarded the defendant over $4 million in attorneys’ fees, concluding that the EEOC’s claims were both frivolous and failed to meet statutory minimums for many of the purported class members. As would be expected, this decision did not sit well with the EEOC, and the agency appealed the fee award to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Since the initial appeal, the case has traveled to the U.S. Supreme Court, which remanded it to the original district court. Last week, that court’s determination that the EEOC owes the defendant over $1.8 million in fees was affirmed by the Eighth Circuit. In EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc., the Eighth Circuit upheld the discretion of the lower court to make the fee award, even though it was not based on a precise mathematical formula. The award was based on the court’s conclusion that claims involving a substantial number of class members had no reasonable basis in fact or in law, and that for others, the EEOC had failed to administratively investigate the claims or engage in the conciliation process.
If this decision marks the end of this litigation, it should serve as a deterrent to abusive litigation practices by the EEOC. While the large majority of unsuccessful discrimination cases brought by the agency will not result in attorneys’ fees awards to the employer, in those situations where the EEOC fails to establish reasonable grounds for the litigation, defendants can use the threat of a claim for fees to curb overly aggressive and questionable litigation practices.