By Ryan J. Foley
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission planned Monday to ask a federal appeals court to reconsider a ruling that could hurt its ability to pursue class-action discrimination lawsuits on behalf of workers in the Midwest.
The agency plans to file a petition for a rehearing with the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which earlier this year dismissed a lawsuit the EEOC filed on behalf of more than 100 women who claimed they were sexually harassed by male trainers at an Iowa trucking company.
The 2-1 ruling set a new standard requiring the EEOC to investigate every worker's claim and seek informal settlements before suing a company. The ruling affects lawsuits filed anywhere in the federal circuit that stretches from Arkansas to the Dakotas and sets a higher bar than the agency faces elsewhere.
EEOC General Counsel P. David Lopez said the standard would make it more expensive and time-consuming for an agency with limited resources to bring large-scale harassment cases. The agency has not yet issued guidance to investigators about the new standard, hoping the ruling will be overturned, he said.
Once the EEOC formally asks for a rehearing, the three judges who originally heard the case could decide to take another look, a majority of the 11 active judges on the court could decide to take up the case, or the court can outright deny the request. Federal rules say petitions for rehearing are granted infrequently and are discouraged except for those cases "necessary to maintain and secure the uniformity of decisions or that raise questions of exceptional importance."
Business groups are closely watching the case at a time when the EEOC has decided to bring more class-action discrimination cases across the country. They say the agency has been overly aggressive at times, bringing lawsuits that can ruin reputations and cost millions before identifying the scope of the legal problems at issue.
The agency last year filed a record-high 23 systemic discrimination cases, Lopez said. Recent cases have led to a $20 million judgment against Verizon Inc. over an attendance policy that allegedly discriminated against disabled workers and a $3 million settlement for black workers passed over for janitorial jobs at Chicago's O'Hare airport.
"These are very important cases that we've been bringing, and what we've been doing during my tenure is trying to make sure this is a national program and we have a nationwide capacity to do these cases," Lopez said.
The agency's planned rehearing request Monday is the latest development in a 2007 EEOC lawsuit that accuses Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based CRST Van Expedited Inc. of subjecting female truck drivers to a hostile workplace by failing to stop rampant sexual harassment in its training program.
Dozens of current and former female drivers say male trainers pressured them to have sex, made constant sexual remarks and even groped them during cross-country drives that could last for weeks. The EEOC is seeking compensation for workers and policy changes.
The EEOC lawsuit was filed before the agency knew how many employees would be part of the case. The agency sent letters to thousands of workers and eventually identified 270 women who were harassed, though only 150 showed up for depositions to testify about their experiences.
The agency's tactics angered U.S. District Judge Linda Reade, who called them a "sue first, ask questions later litigation strategy," dismissed the lawsuit and ordered the EEOC to reimburse the trucking company $4.4 million in legal fees. The appeals court largely upheld Reade's decision dismissing the case, but threw out the fee award, which had been unprecedented in size.
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