Complaints (“Charges”) of unlawful discrimination based on gender, race, color, national origin, age, religion or disability, are filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Typically, the EEOC investigates a charge and, if appropriate, will issue a Notice of Right to Sue Letter. The complainant has ninety (90) days after his/her receipt of the Letter to file suit. If the 90 days passes, any suit is barred.
However, the EEOC can also decide to prosecute a suit on behalf of the claimant. It may do this when it believes there is evidence that the employer discriminated against the individual complainant. This pattern has and is about to change. The EEOC’s new strategic plan adopts a priority to focus more of it’s case load on “systemic litigation”.
The strategic plan notes that “systemic litigation” cases are those that address a pattern or practice, a policy or class cases where the alleged discrimination has a broad impact on an industry, occupation, business or geographic area. In other words, the case has a perceived significance greater than the claims of an individual claimant.
The strategic plan also provides that by the end of fiscal year 2016, a percentage – still to be determined – of cases in the EEOC’s litigation docket will be systemic cases. Increasingly, the EEOC will have to prioritize the systemic cases it chooses to litigate and to bring fewer individual and small-class claims of discrimination, since systemic litigation requires significantly greater resources than other types of litigation.
This emphasis on systemic litigation will begin in the Fall of 2012. Over time, the impact of this new priority will emerge. It seems that the cases involving systemic litigation will involve larger businesses in targeted business clusters.
In 2011, the EEOC had 580 systemic investigations which involved more than 2,000 charges. While systemic lawsuits filed were less than ten percent of the total filed in 2011 (23 out of 261) this number can be expected to increase. In July, 2011, the EEOC obtained a $20,000,000.00 (twenty million dollar) settlement from VERIZON in a nationwide disability lawsuit. From the EEOC’s point of view, the emphasis on systemic cases allows it to utilize its resources to maximize enforcement by focusing on cases with the broadest impact.
There has been some push back from employers and the federal courts where the EEOC has used a few employee’s claims of discrimination to seek much broader relief or action. In the Eighth Circuit (a federal appeals court) the EEOC had made a vague determination that the employer had subjected a “class of employees” to sexual harassment. In EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc., the Circuit Court dismissed 67 claims because the EEOC failed to properly investigate the claims before filing suit. The Circuit required the EEOC to investigate the claims of each class member. The EEOC is seeking review of this decision.
However, a different result was recently reached by a district court in the Northern District of Illinois. In EEOC v. United Road Towing, Inc., the district court (the federal trial court) allowed the EEOC to pursue claims without a pre-suit investigation of each individual employee’s claims or disclosure of the identities of the employee-claimants to the employers. The EEOC had sought $2,000,000 in monetary relief for the charging parties but only two employees of the systemic class were identified. It was only after suit was filed that the EEOC disclosed the names of seventeen other employees allegedly affected by the discrimination.
The EEOC has embraced the district court’s judgment as vindication of its “sue first disclose later” systemic policy. Updates will be provided as this area of the law evolves.
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