The NCSL Blog

19

By Lisa Soronen

In CRST Van Expedited v. EEOC the Supreme Court ruled employers who prevail in Title VII employment discrimination cases may recover attorney’s fees if they are able to “rebuff” employee’s claims for any reason—including reasons not related to the merits of the claims. 

ISupreme Court; photo credit: The Hilln this case the lower court dismissed the sexual harassment claims of 67 women because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which represented the women, failed to meet its statutory obligation to investigate the allegations and conciliate with their employer, CRST Van Expedited.

The lower court concluded that for CRST to be a prevailing party eligible under Title VII to recover attorney’s fees from the EEOC the court would have had to have ruled “on the merits” of the employees’ claims, which it did not.

The Supreme Court disagreed, concluding that employers may prevail “even if the court’s final judgment rejects the plaintiff’s claim for a nonmerits reason.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the unanimous Court, noted “common sense” indicates that an employer may prevail regardless of whether the case is disposed of “on the merits.” An employer’s objective is to rebuff an employee’s claim, “irrespective of the precise reason for the court’s decision.”

Moreover, Congress didn’t indicate that employers may only recover attorney’s fees when they win “on the merit.” And in Christianburg Garment Co. v. EEOC (1978), where the Court ruled employers can only recover attorney’s fees if the employee’s claims were “frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless,” the lower court made no ruling “on the merits” but the Supreme Court assumed the employer could recover.

The Supreme Court will decide one more employment discrimination case this term. In Green v. Donahoe it will decide for purposes of federal employment discrimination law when the filing period for a constructive discharge claim begins to run.

Lisa Soronen is the executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and writes frequently for the NCSL blog about the U.S. Supreme Court.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.