2017’s Top 5 Most Intriguing Developments in EEOC-Initiated Litigation (And A Preview of Our Annual EEOC Litigation Report)

by Seyfarth Shaw LLP
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[co-author: Kyla Miller]

Seyfarth Synopsis: We are once again pleased to offer our loyal blog readers a breakdown of the five most intriguing developments in EEOC litigation in 2017, in addition to a pre-publication preview of our annual report on developments and trends in EEOC-initiated litigation. This year’s book, titled EEOC-Initiated Litigation: FY 2017, provides a comprehensive examination of the EEOC’s FY 2017 filings (from October 2016 through September 2017), and the major decisions handed down this year in pending EEOC litigation.

In our view, every employer should be monitoring EEOC activity – it is the surest way to avoid becoming the EEOC’s next target. That is why we conduct a thorough analysis of all EEOC activity every year to keep our readers up to date on current trends and, hopefully, provide a peek inside the EEOC’s decision-making process. Our annual report is targeted towards HR professionals, corporate counsel, and other corporate decision-makers. We hope that it proves useful as they attempt to steer clear of EEOC-initiated litigation in FY 2018.

This year, we have once again categorized our analysis of substantive developments in line with the EEOC’s strategic priorities. This year is the first year of the EEOC’s new Strategic Enforcement Plan, which covers Fiscal Year 2017 through 2021. The new SEP advances the same six strategic priorities as the previous strategic plan. It has been our experience that analyzing developments in EEOC litigation in light of the SEP priorities provides a better understanding of the EEOC’s focus and agenda.

The full publication will be offered for download as an eBook.

As always, we like to take a moment at the end of one year, and the beginning of the next, to look back at the most intriguing decisions and developments of the year.

Here is our list of the “top five” most intriguing developments of 2017.

A Year Of Transition: Litigation On Track Despite Changes On The Way

FY 2017 was a year of transition for the EEOC. It is still too early to tell how the changed political landscape will impact the future of EEOC litigation given the important positions that remain vacant for high-level agency personnel. But this did not stop the EEOC from charging full speed ahead. Total merits filings were up more than 100% over FY 2016. In fact, the EEOC filed more lawsuits in September than it did in all of FY 2016 combined. Although the 2017-2021 Strategic Enforcement Plan maintains its focus on the same six strategic enforcement priorities, it added two substantive areas as emerging issues, including complex employment relationships and “backlash discrimination” against Muslims, Sikhs, and other persons of Arab, Middle Eastern, or South Asian descent. Those are important issues to watch in FY 2018 and beyond. Our analysis of these issues can be found here.

A New Standard Of Review For EEOC Subpoena Enforcement Actions

In McLane Co. v. EEOC, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the scope of review for appellate courts reviewing a lower court’s decision to enforce (or not) an EEOC administrative subpoena. In McLane, the Supreme Court held that such decisions are reviewable under the abuse-of-discretion standard, which is more akin to a hands-off type of review. The decision clarified that the District Courts should subject EEOC subpoenas to a searching, fact-intensive review, and that their judgment in this respect should be respected by the appellate courts. Although ostensibly a win for the EEOC, the decision makes it clear that the District Court cannot simply presume the relevance of information or documents the EEOC seeks with its administrative subpoenas. Instead, a District Court must give serious consideration to issues of relevancy and burden when deciding whether or not to enforce an EEOC subpoena. Our analysis of this trend can be found here.

Developments In Religious Discrimination Law: Accommodations May Be Required For Wide Swath Of Beliefs

In EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., the Fourth Circuit expanded the scope of religious accommodation requests employers must consider. In Consol, the EEOC alleged that the defendants refused to provide an employee with a religious accommodation by subjecting him to a biometric hand scanner to clock in and out of work. The employee believed a hand scanner was used to identify and collect personal information that would be used by the Christian Anti-Christ to identify followers with the “mark of the beast,” as described in the New Testament Book of Revelation. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the District Court against the employer, finding that a religious accommodation was necessary. Our discussion of this development can be found here.

Sexual Harassment In The Workplace: Focus on “Manager”

Given all the recent news about sexual harassment in the workplace, and the fast developing #MeToo movement, we suspect that the EEOC is already preparing for an uptick in sexual harassment complaints in FY 2018. But recent decisions show that not all complaints alleging sexual harassment are a slam dunk for employees. In EEOC v. Autozone, Inc., the Sixth Circuit affirmed a U.S. District Court’s grant of an employer’s motion for summary judgment after finding that the harassing managerial employee was not a “supervisor” under Title VII. The employer was thus not liable for the employee’s actions. The Sixth Circuit held that just because someone is titled a “manager” does not necessarily mean that they are “supervisors” under Title VII. They must have the authority to take an employment action against the complaining employee. A further discussion on this development can be found here. We expect decisions in FY 2018 will dramatically reshape the landscape of harassment law, with the EEOC leading the way.

EEOC’s Penchant For Expanding Pattern Or Practice Cases

In FY 2017, the EEOC continued to try to expand its powers to prosecute large-scale pattern or practice cases. In EEOC v. Bass Pro Outdoor World, LLC, a District Court in Texas was willing to reign it in. In that case, the EEOC attempted to add claims on behalf of individuals who had not yet applied to work for Bass Pro at the time the EEOC tried to conciliate its claims against Bass Pro. Title VII requires the EEOC to attempt to resolve charges of discrimination against an employer through means of conciliation before it seeks redress in the courts. In this case, the District Court was unwilling to allow the EEOC to add claimants on behalf of whom it could not have conciliated prior to bringing its lawsuit. A closer look at this development can be found here.

Although we are almost a full year into the Trump Administration and Republican control of Congress, it is still unclear what those political developments will mean for the future of EEOC litigation. The enforcement priorities are the same as the past four years. But how the EEOC chooses to interpret those priorities will undoubtedly change as high-level positions are filled by the Trump Administration. This makes FY 2018 a year of uncertainty as we await those changes in EEOC leadership. We look forward to keeping our readers apprised of these changes as they occur!

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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