Cross-posted at WLF’s Forbes.com contributor site
A federal district court recently affirmed that there are temporal limits on the government’s snare, and dismissed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) lawsuit initiated almost seven years after the employee brought a complaint. EEOC v. Propak Logistics, No. 1:09-CV-311 (W.D.N.C. Aug. 7, 2012). Using the equitable defense of laches, the court decided that the EEOC’s handling of the investigation presented both unreasonable delay and prejudice to the defendant. Though the case was initiated seven years after the complainant alleged violations of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1991, the decision came almost ten years after the complaint was filed. Meanwhile, the DOJ had initiated and completed a separate investigation in less than one year, resulting in the department’s dismissal of all claims.
The matter originated as a charge brought against Propak in 2003 alleging that the company had refused to hire non-Hispanic persons for non-managerial positions in a North Carolina facility. From that point, until it initiated its lawsuit in 2009, the EEOC alleged it had engaged in continuous activity relating the investigation of the claim. That may have been true, but to this the court countered, “Certainly delay will not be excused merely because the EEOC activity is continuous, if the nature and quality of that activity do not justify the delay,” i.e., paper shuffling is not quality activity.
There were numerous indications pointing to the unreasonableness of the delay. For instance, the EEOC did not interview the complainant until six months after his charge was filed, and didn’t interview him again for a response to the defendant’s statements until over a year later. The EEOC did not issue the complainant a right to sue letter until five years after the complaint had been registered, and it was only around that same time that the EEOC finally notified Propak it should prepare to defend a class-action rather than individual suit.
In the seven years between when the complaint was filed and the EEOC initiated litigation, the original complainant had dropped his suit, the relevant witnesses changed employment, memories faded, and all of Propak’s North Carolina facilities were shut down. As the court noted, these changes were not due to any fault of the defendant’s; rather, they were merely natural consequences of the passage of time. Meanwhile, attorneys’ fees were accumulating, potential back pay was piling up, and because the relevant facilities had been shut down, injunctive relief was now moot. In the court’s words, the EEOC had dealt Propak a “double blow”: “The passage of time has hindered the defendants in their ability to prevail on the merits while at the same time inflating the potential damages defendants face if they do not prevail.” Under the court’s view, these facts were sufficient to constitute prejudice.
What’s interesting is that the opinion is peppered with relevant quotes from several different lawsuits, all of which pertain to the EEOC and allegations of unreasonable delay. This decision provides defendants with solid case law if they should encounter an unnecessarily prolonged investigation, and suggests the EEOC should pick its battles and fight them expeditiously. The EEOC cannot engage targets in wars that have no foreseeable end. If professional ethics suggest that dragging one’s feet in litigation is not in good form, certainly the same should hold true for the government. This case reaffirms that principle.