If anyone doubts our democracy’s need for an independent judiciary to check the executive and legislative branches, consider two federal court opinions issued last week. Federal workplace police at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Department of Labor (DOL) each received a thorough (and richly deserved) judicial slapdown for arrogantly flouting the rule of law.
EEOC v. Kaplan Higher Education Corp. The unanimous U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit panel set the tone of this seven-page opinion by declaring, “In this case the EEOC sued the defendant for using the same type of background check that the EEOC itself uses.”
Kaplan implemented vigorous screening of job applicants, including the use of credit checks, in response to several instances of employee theft. Such increased self-policing earned the company an EEOC legal action. The Commission argued that Kaplan’s credit checks had a disparate impact on minorities.
To support its case, EEOC hired a psychologist to perform statistical studies using Kaplan’s applicant data. The “expert” filed numerous reports with the trial judge, most of which were either late or contrary to the judge’s demand that he cease providing reports. The judge found that the psychologists’ reports were unreliable under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and dismissed EEOC’s case.
The Commission fared just as poorly on appeal. The Sixth Circuit agreed with the lower court’s conclusion that EEOC’s “expert” and his methodology failed every factor that courts utilize to assess expert testimony under the Supreme Court’s Daubert v. Merrell Dow opinion. The judges agreed that a court could neither test the psychologist’s technique, nor could it evaluate the test’s error rate. EEOC argued that its “expert’s” theory did not have to be subject to peer review. The Sixth Circuit found the argument “meritless.” As for the other Daubert factors, EEOC essentially argued that the burden fell on Kaplan to prove they had been met. The court pointedly retorted, “The law says to the contrary.”
The opinion ended as sharply as it began:
We need not belabor the issue further. The EEOC brought this case on the basis of homemade methodology, crafted by a witness with no particular expertise to craft it, administered by persons with no particular expertise to administer it, tested by no one, and accepted only by the witness himself.
Gate Guard Services v. Perez. Here, the Department of Labor lost more than just a case. Because of its antics, American taxpayers had to shell out $565,527.61 in attorneys’ fees to the enforcement target.
DOL accused Gate Guard Services (GGS) of misclassifying gate sentries as independent contractors. GGS counter-sued and sought a declaratory judgment. In February 2013, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas Senior Judge John Rainey granted GGS summary judgment and dismissed DOL’s claims against the company. GGS then sought attorneys’ fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA).
Under that statute, the government must prove that its position in a lawsuit had a reasonable basis in both fact and law (“substantially justified”) at every stage of the action. Judge Rainey agreed with GGS that DOL’s lead investigator departed from DOL enforcement procedures when he destroyed interview notes and assessed a $6 million fine after he had interviewed only three gate sentries.
“Had the DOL interviewed more than just a handful of GGS’s roughly 400 gate attendants,” Judge Rainey wrote, “it would have known [they] were not employees.” He listed ten different factors that DOL failed to reasonably consider, including “the federal government itself, via the ACE [Army Corps of Engineers] uses the services of gate attendants at federal parks and classifies these individuals as independent contractors.”
The court concluded that DOL’s actions both before and during the suit were not substantially justified and awarded fees to GGS.
Checked and Balanced. But for an independent judiciary, the executive branch would be free to engage in the type of hypocrisy and disrespect for rules that were on display in these two cases. It might routinely label employers’ credit checks discriminatory while utilizing the very same screening method, or it could categorize a company’s gate sentries “employees” while other federal agencies consider similarly situation workers “independent contractors.” Agencies would prosecute businesses for destroying internal documents while permitting federal investigators to freely do the same.
We should all be grateful that our federal courts did not tolerate such behavior from EEOC and DOL, and instead reminded them of principles most of us learned in kindergarten: play by the rules and live by the same rules you expect others to abide by.
Also posted at WLF’s Forbes.com contributor page