Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that a court in a Title VII case does not need to reach a judgment “on the merits,” but a party may prevail on procedural grounds, short of trial, in order to be designated the “prevailing party” in order to recover attorney fees.
In CRST Van Expedited, Inc. v. EEOC (decided 5/19/2016), the EEOC sued CRST, a trucking company, on behalf of 270 women who claimed that they had been sexually harassed in violation of Title VII. Ultimately, all but 67 dropped out of the case, and the district court dismissed the remaining cases finding that the EEOC had failed to fulfill its prerequisite duties when it had not conducted separate discovery, did not make reasonable cause determinations, and did not pursue the required administrative resolution processes.
Despite the lack of a formal trial or judgment, the court determined that the employer was the prevailing party and awarded attorney fees. The EEOC appealed to the Eighth Circuit which reversed the fee award stating that the defendant had not prevailed because the trial court had not reached a determination on the merits of the case.
As a result of this decision, rule that a plaintiff’s case must be considered entirely without merit or frivolous in order for the defendant to recover attorney fees still stands, but the decision clarifies that courts do not need to reach a decision on the merits before deciding to award fees if a case is terminated on procedural grounds.
The Court has sent the case back to the lower court to decide the actual amount of legal fees to be awarded which are estimated at more than $4 million.
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