IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission asked a federal appeals court Monday to reconsider a ruling that could hurt its ability to pursue class-action discrimination lawsuits on behalf of workers in the Midwest.
The agency filed a petition asking the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider a February ruling that dismissed a lawsuit filed on behalf of more than 100 women who claimed they were sexually harassed by male drivers at an Iowa trucking company.
The 2-1 ruling set a new standard requiring EEOC to identify every affected worker, investigate their claims 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 to bring large-scale harassment and discrimination cases. The agency has not yet issued guidance to investigators about the new standard, hoping the ruling will be overturned, he said.
"The panel's unprecedented imposition of this new requirement will impede EEOC's ability to enforce ... civil rights laws in workplaces with the most widespread discrimination," agency lawyers argued in Monday's filing.
Federal rules say petitions for rehearing are granted infrequently and discouraged except for those cases "necessary to maintain and secure the uniformity of decisions or that raise questions of exceptional importance." The judges who originally heard the case could take a second look or a majority of the 11 active judges on the court could decide to review the case.
Business groups are closely watching the case at a time when the EEOC has brought more class-action discrimination cases. They say the agency has been overly aggressive at times, bringing lawsuits that can 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.
Monday's filing is the latest development in a 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.
Current and former female drivers say male trainers pressured them to have sex, made constant sexual remarks, groped and even assaulted them during cross-country drives that could last for weeks. The EEOC lawsuit was filed before the agency knew how many employees would be part of the case. The agency eventually identified 270 women, though only 150 showed up for depositions.
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.
EEOC alleged Monday that the trucking company misled its investigator by claiming executives were aware of fewer internal harassment complaints than had been lodged.
"It is particularly inappropriate to fault EEOC for not identifying victims during the investigation when CRST knowingly withheld that information," the filing said. "The majority's rule all but encourages employers to lie to EEOC during investigations with the hope of benefiting later if EEOC attempts enforcement in court."
The company's top lawyer, Eric Baker, said Monday he had expected the petition for rehearing but declined additional comment. In an interview last month, he said the firm took complaints seriously and would be exonerated.