One of the most outrageous court rulings in modern history may be the dismissal of a sex discrimination lawsuit filed by hundreds of female truck driver trainees against CRST Van Expedited Inc., which was then awarded $4.7 million in attorneys’ fees.
On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in Missouri upheld the lower court’s dismissal of all but two of the plaintiffs but vacated the attorneys’ fee award. One of the surviving plaintiffs dropped out of the litigation and the other secured an out of court settlement of $50,000.
This week, CRST asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the attorneys’ fee award.
The case was a complete train wreck for the EEOC, which initially represented a class of 270 women. Some of the plaintiffs were subject to shocking and violent incidents of sexual harassment during training runs with CRST male drivers. When they called CRST to complain about the harassment, they were told they had to remain on the truck overnight with the harasser.
After almost six years of litigation, Iowa Chief Judge Linda R. Reade abruptly dismissed the case in its entirety and awarded $4.7 million in attorney fees to CRST.
The 67 alleged sexual harassment victims were denied justice because the EEOC or the U.S. District Court of Iowa (or both) screwed up. Will taxpayers now be forced to pay CRST’s legal bills?
Judge Reade dismissed claims on a variety of grounds but she dismissed 67 cases because the EEOC failed to engage CRST in individual settlement talks with respect to each claimant, which was not a requirement in other federal circuits. The EEOC took the position that it had fulfilled its pre-suit obligation when it engaged in settlement talks with CRST on the class action claim, and that CRST declined to settle.
In its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Paul M. Smith, who represents CRST, argued that CRST is the prevailing party because the judge effectively imposed a sanction on the EEOC by dismissing the 67 cases “with prejudice” so the EEOC cannot refile the class action. According to the transcript of the proceedings, he said the EEOC’s decision to bring a class action lawsuit was frivolous, unreasonable and without foundation. He said the EEOC failed to investigate or to make a “reasonable cause” determination for many of the plaintiffs. While there were some “quite serious” complaints, he argued the EEOC failed to prove that CRST had a systemic policy of ignoring sexual harassment complaints.
EEOC attorney Brian H. Fletcher argued that an award of attorney fees cannot be based upon the EEOC’s failure to satisfy a procedural pre-condition to filing a lawsuit. Fletcher said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the EEOC can cure a “pre-suit” defect. He also said that failure to meet a pre-suit obligation is the equivalent of a jurisdictional failure and does not go to the merits of a case. Fletcher argued that CRST is not the “prevailing party” with respect to the 67 dismissed claims and is not entitled to attorney fees.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year in Mach Mining, LLC v. EEOC that the EEOC has a duty to conciliate and that duty is subject to judicial review but that its efforts can be relatively minimal. The Court said that the remedy in the event of a failure to conciliate is for the court to order the EEOC to conciliate.The Court said the remedy is not dismissal of the lawsuit.