The United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the EEOC may be ordered to pay an employer’s attorney’s fees if it fails to satisfy the conciliation requirement of Title VII. In CRST Van Expedited, Inc. v. EEOC, No. 14-1375 (May 19, 2016), the Court held that a favorable ruling on the merits of a claim is not required for an employer to be considered a “prevailing party” that may seek legal fees. The opinion expands Mach Mining v. EECOC, 135 S.Ct. 1645 (2015), which found that the EEOC has a duty to engage in pre-suit conciliation, but gave employers few remedies if the EEOC failed to do so.
Under Title VII, after a discrimination charge is filed, the EEOC must follow a conciliation process before filing a lawsuit. Conciliation includes notifying an employer about the alleged discrimination, describing the alleged harms, and initiating a discussion so that the employer can attempt to remedy the situation.
In CRST Van Expedited, an employee filed a charge in 2005 alleging she was sexually harassed while training to become a truck driver. The EEOC investigated and told CRST that it had found over 270 employees who also had been sexually harassed. It did not, however, identify the employees. In 2007, the EEOC decided conciliation had failed and filed suit on behalf of the employees against CRST.
Two years after filing suit, the EEOC still had failed to identify the 270 employees. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa dismissed nearly all of the claims against CRST on the ground that the EEOC had not adequately conciliated. The court then awarded attorney’s fees to CRST. The Eighth Circuit held on appeal that only a ruling on the merits of the claims, not on conciliation efforts, could deem an employer a “prevailing party” and permit it to seek legal fees.
The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and found that prevailing on the merits of a discrimination claim is not a predicate to an employer’s obtaining legal fees. The Court reasoned that regardless of the merits, an employer should not be barred from receiving fees when it successfully defends against shortcomings in the EEOC’s pre-suit obligations. This significant decision provides employers with more incentive to challenge unreasonable claims by the EEOC and ensure the agency follows its statutory requirements. CRST is expected to seek $4.5 million in attorney’s fees on remand.