Thursday, May 19, 2016

SCOTUS: Defendant may prevail and collect attorney's fees without favorable ruling on the merits

This morning, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion (Justice Thomas writing a separate concurrence) in CRST Van Expedited, Inv. v. EEOC.

In Title VII discrimination cases, the prevailing party may collect attorney's fees from the loser in some circumstances. Today's decision describes the established law regarding when defendants are entitled to attorney's fees as:
When a defendant is the prevailing party on a civil rights claim, the Court has held, district courts may award attorney’s fees if the plaintiff ’s “claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless,” or if “the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so.” Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U. S. 412, 422 (1978).
The "central issue" in today's case was whether the defendant was the "prevailing party" if it did not obtain a "favorable ruling on the merits."

This case has a long and convoluted history, which makes up most of the Court's opinion today. The short (and probably oversimplified) version is: The EEOC tried to add a bunch of new plaintiffs to a patter-or-practice harassment claim *after* it had already filed its lawsuit. The EEOC failed to satisfy its pre-suit obligations - specifically, it failed to investigate and attempt to conciliate the individual claims for the women that were added after the EEOC filed the lawsuit. The Court dismissed those claims, and the employer now seeks a ton of attorney's fees.

So, the claims were dismissed but not "on the merits." In other words, there was no determination that these women had not been harassed - their claims were dismissed because the EEOC did not investigate and attempt to conciliate them. The question for the Supreme Court was whether the employer could still be the "prevailing party" and collect attorney's fees even without a ruling on the merits. Bottom line? The Supreme Court held that the employer-defendant was the "prevailing party" and could collect those attorney's fees (assuming the other requirements were met).

The Court refused to address some other issues raised by the EEOC, including whether the claims were actually "frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless" and whether a defendant must obtain a "preclusive judgment" to receive attorney's fees.