The United States Supreme Court recently handed defendant employers a significant victory in discrimination and harassment suits filed under federal law. In CSRT Van Expedited, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in an opinion given by Justice Kennedy, the Court unanimously held that employers do not need to “prevail on the merits” of a Title VII claim to be able to recover their attorney fees from the plaintiff.
The case below began in 2005 when an EEOC complaint of discrimination was filed by a new female driver, who alleged that two male drivers sexually harassed her on training trips. During its investigation, the EEOC also found evidence, it believed, of a pattern and practice of sexual harassment of women drivers. Conciliation with the employer was unsuccessful, the EEOC filed a class action case in 2007. During discovery, the trial judge dismissed the EEOC’s claims of a “pattern and practice” of sexual harassment, and in a series of further orders (including for discovery violations by the EEOC) dropped almost 200 women from the class, leaving only 67 in the case. The district court ultimately dismissed the case as to them as well, finding that the EEOC had failed to perform its pre-suit duties to perform separate investigations, make individual reasonable cause determinations, or attempt conciliation as to any of the employees. The judge held that CSRT was the prevailing party and entitled to over four million dollars in attorney fees because the filing by the EEOC was frivolous and without merit. The result was twice appealed to the Eighth Circuit, and twice remanded, before finding its way to the Supreme Court because of the Eighth Circuit’s decision that employers were only entitled to recover fees if there was favorable “judicial determination … on the merits.” Since that had not happened, the award of fees was improper.
The Supreme Court reviewed the language of the statute, and its prior authority in the matter, and concluded that the Circuit Courts of Appeal, like the Eighth Circuit, had interpreted the law and its precedent cases incorrectly. US Code states that “