By Phillips Murrah Director Byrona J. Maule
Fall is a time of change. But this fall, the transition from summer isn’t the only change we’re experiencing. This fall has also brought extraordinary action from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Starting in July, the EEOC has filed a flurry of federal lawsuits against both private and public employers.
In July 2017, the EEOC filed 20 lawsuits, compared to eight in July 2016, according to EEOC.gov’s announcements. At first, I thought this was some type of anomaly, but it continued into August 2017 with another 20 lawsuits filed, compared to eight last August. In September, they filed a whopping 69 lawsuits, as opposed to 22 in September 2016. To date, the EEOC has filed 241 lawsuits in 2017, compared to 86 in all of 2016. With three months left in 2017, there is no reason to believe the rest of 2017 will trend any differently.
Other changes in the EEOC’s activity include an inclination to file suit against an employer in a single plaintiff case, as opposed to lawsuits in which the outcome would have a broad impact on society. The EEOC’s 2012-2016 Strategic Plan emphasized using litigation mechanisms to identify and attack discriminatory policies and other instances of systemic discrimination. This emphasis seems to have waned.
Considering the life cycle of an EEOC lawsuit from charge to the EEOC’s decision to file a lawsuit takes multiple years, this sharp spike in the number of merit lawsuits being filed does not indicate that workplace behavior has drastically changed in recent months. Rather, the change appears to be in the decision-making process of the EEOC when deciding if it is going to file a lawsuit and what types of lawsuits the EEOC pursues. In one recent case involving Home Depot, the EEOC filed charges despite the company’s position it had reached agreement with the EEOC on the major terms of a settlement.
What does it all mean? It is difficult to know at this point. The real significance for employers is there are significantly more lawsuits being brought by the EEOC in 2017 than at any time between 2012 and 2016. Employers need to be very aware of this, and approach EEOC charges with increased attention.
Byrona J. Maule is a partner and co-chair of the labor and employment practice group at Oklahoma City-based law firm Phillips Murrah.