WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) -- Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court voted unanimously, 8-0, to allow employers to recover attorneys' fees as defendants in Title VII cases, overturning a ruling by a federal appeals court in CRST Van Expedited Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on sex, race, color, national origin or religion.
The EEOC sued CRST Van Expedited in 2007 on behalf of 150 women alleging the trucking company was guilty of allowing participants in its new driver training program to be sexually harassed. A federal district court in Iowa eventually dismissed all the claims, said CRST was the prevailing party and awarded the company fees and costs of more than $4 million.
The EEOC filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which ruled in 2014 that because CRST had won on procedural grounds, the ruling was not sufficient enough for the defendant to be considered a prevailing party required to pay the EEOC's attorneys' fees.
Paul Patten, principal for Chicago-based law firm Jackson Lewis, said the Supreme Court's May 19 decision was a positive one.
"This is generally a good thing, because there are ways that (defendants) win on summary judgment that are procedural and that might be that the plaintiff was untimely," Patten told Legal Newsline. "There can be other procedural aspects as well, but that can be clear often at the beginning of the lawsuit if it's a big issue.
"And so if the employer has to go the whole route and spend $100,000 in discovery and then win on summary judgment, now in every circuit, they'll be able to get their attorneys' fees."
But it still may be difficult for defendants to recover attorneys' fees.
Judge Clarence Thomas noted that prior Supreme Court precedent was that plaintiffs are "ordinarily to be awarded attorneys' fees in all but special circumstances," while defendants should only be able to recover "upon a finding that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable or without foundation."
Patten said this was not a surprising opinion, given the court has long held this viewpoint.
While it's now possible for employers to obtain attorneys' fees when prevailing on a procedural issue, it's not a result that should be expected on reliable or consistent basis, he noted.
"This is not an earth-shattering moment," Patten said. "The context is that the way the Supreme Court has interpreted things for almost 30 years is that defendants only get their attorneys' fees when they win and the plaintiff's case was baseless or frivolous. So employers often win a lawsuit in summary judgment, and they show that there's not enough evidence there for a plaintiff to proceed. In most of those cases, plaintiffs can then argue that their lawsuit wasn't frivolous.
"So most of the cases where the defendant wins, they're still not going to be able to obtain attorneys' fees."