December 07, 2015

On December 4, 2015, the US Supreme Court granted Jenner & Block’s petition for certiorari to review the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals’ reversal of one of the largest awards of attorneys fees against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  The firm won the award of nearly $4.2 million in fees and $505,000 in costs in 2013 for national trucking company CRST Van Expedited, after an Iowa federal district court dismissed all 270 claims for sexual harassment that the EEOC had brought against CRST and the Eighth Circuit had affirmed all but two of the dismissals that EEOC had appealed.

The appellate court’s reversal of the fee award was based in part on its application of a rule limiting civil rights fee awards to cases involving rulings “on the merits.”  The district court had dismissed 67 of EEOC’s claims because the EEOC had failed to fulfill pre-suit obligations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, that is, engage in pre-suit investigation, find reasonable cause and attempt to conciliate the claims, other than for two alleged victims (female drivers for the company) who had filed charges with the EEOC.  The Eighth Circuit held that those dismissals were not based on the “merits” and therefore that CRST was not entitled to a fee award with respect to those claims.  The fee award based on the dismissal of the EEOC’s other claims on summary judgment was vacated and remanded to the district court for a claim-by-claim determination as to whether CRST is entitled to a fee award.  The district court has not yet ruled on CRST’s entitlement to fees based on those claims.

Partners Paul M. Smith, John H. Mathias, Jr. and James T. Malysiak filed the petition for certiorari in May, asking the Court to review the Eighth Circuit decision with respect to the pre-suit requirements issue because it conflicts with decisions of three other federal circuits that have affirmed fee awards to defendants that prevailed in cases in which the EEOC had failed to satisfy Title VII’s pre-suit requirements.

Further, the petition noted, the conflict reflects a broader disagreement among the circuits as to whether and when fees can be awarded to defendants in civil rights cases terminated before a ruling on the merits.

The appeal will likely be argued in the spring and decided by the end of June.