Supreme Court Deals a Blow to the EEOC

The upshot of today’s U.S. Supreme Court unanimous ruling in favor of a trucking company in CRST Van Expedited Inc. v. EEOC is that a company can still be considered the prevailing party in a court case — and thus be eligible for reimbursement of its legal fees by the other party — even if it doesn’t win a favorable judgment on the merits of its argument.

CRST, a trucking company, had been awarded a record $4.7 million in legal fees against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by a trial court after a class action brought against the company by the EEOC on behalf of 154 female drivers was found to have been without merit. The EEOC’s suit had alleged that CRST allowed “severe and pervasive” sexual harassment against female drivers in its driver-training program. The case was later dismissed by the court because it found that the EEOC had failed to show a pattern or practice of discrimination, nor did it fully investigate the claims, find reasonable cause and attempt reconciliation prior to filing suit.

However, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the $4.7 million award because the claims were dismissed without ruling on their merit and thus CRST was ineligible per Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which grants attorney fee awards to “prevailing” defendants who can show the EEOC’s position was “unreasonable or frivolous.”

Writing for the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy said there was no indication that Congress had intended “that defendants should be eligible to recover attorney’s fees only when courts dispose of claims on their merits.”

“It would make little sense if Congress’ policy of ‘sparing defendants from the cost of frivolous litigation’ depended on the distinction between merits-based and non-merits-based frivolity.”

The ruling sends the case back to the lower court for further review.