One of the few bright spots for an employer defending against a frivolous discrimination claim is the potential for recovering attorney fees. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination, authorizes an award of attorney fees to the “prevailing party” in certain circumstances. While the U.S. Supreme Court has spelled out what it takes for a Title VII plaintiff to “prevail,” it had never “set forth in detail how courts should determine whether a defendant has prevailed.” Now, in a unanimous decision, the Court has done that: A defendant does not need to win on the merits of a Title VII claim to be considered the prevailing party.
In CRST Van Expedited, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (U.S. May 19, 2016), a female trainee at a trucking company claimed she had been sexually harassed by veteran drivers during a 28-day over-the-road training trip. She filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which investigated and found reasonable cause to believe that the company had subjected the trainee and “a class of employees and prospective employees to sexual harassment” in violation of Title VII. The EEOC offered to conciliate—as required by Title VII—prior to filing suit, but the parties were unable to reach an agreement. Taking the position that conciliation had failed, the EEOC then sued the company, seeking relief on behalf of all allegedly aggrieved employees and ultimately identifying over 250 women.