EEOC Files Flurry of Cases on Eve of Government Shutdown
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shut down with a bang, filing eight discrimination suits on September 30, the last day of the fiscal year—and the last day that the agency was open for business before the federal government shut down.
One suit, against a seed and fertilizer company, alleges generic discrimination, a new area of enforcement for the EEOC. Another suit against an insurance company alleges race discrimination because an applicant wore dreadlocks, and another, against Red Lobster, claims that multiple women suffered sexual harassment.
The EEOC is known for bringing a flurry of cases at the end of fiscal years. As Commissioner Chai Feldblum tweeted on September 25, "Must be that time of year. 12 cases filed by EEOC in the last 3 days. Wonder how many more before 9/30?"
Altogether, during the last week of the fiscal year the EEOC filed 22 cases, going after big names including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Wells Fargo Bank and Bank of America Corp., alleging a range of employment discrimination.
The agency appears to be "highly focused in its year-end litigation filings on subject areas that the commission has identified as national priorities in its Strategic Enforcement Plan," said J. Randall Coffey, a labor and employment partner with Fisher & Phillips in Kansas City. "Those priorities include, among others, disability discrimination, hostile work environments which are not remedied by employers, and complaints about what the EEOC claims are ‘overly broad waivers’ in severance or settlement agreements."
As part of the government shutdown, the EEOC suspended its litigation "unless needed on an emergency basis or if a continuance has not been granted by the court," according to the agency.
But when they reopen for business, EEOC lawyers will find a full docket awaiting them.
The generic discrimination claim against seed and fertilizer company the Abatti Group, filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, represents something of a novelty for the EEOC. Brought under the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act of 2008, the suit alleges that the company required job applicants to undergo illegal physical exams and answer questions about their medical conditions. The Abatti Group also allegedly made illegal inquiries into applicants' family medical histories.
The firm's general manager did not return a call seeking comment.
The EEOC brought its first genetic discrimination suit in May against fabric maker Fabricut Inc., which settled the charges for $50,000. The agency brought a second suit, against a nursing home, a few weeks later. That case is pending.
Another noteworthy suit was filed against Mobile, Ala.-based Catastrophe Management Solutions in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama. The EEOC alleges race discrimination in hiring because a black applicant wore dreadlocks.
According to the EEOC, the applicant was hired as a customer service representative, but was told that the company did not allow dreadlocks and that she would have to cut them off to work there. She said no and the company rescinded the job offer.
The EEOC said that crossed the line. "The EEOC will not tolerate employment discrimination against African-American employees because they choose to wear and display the natural texture of their hair, manage and style their hair in a manner amenable to it, or manage and style their hair in a manner differently from non-blacks," said Delner Franklin-Thomas, district director for the EEOC's Birmingham, Ala., office, in a news release.
A Catastrophe representative could not be reached for comment.
The EEOC went after Wal-Mart for alleged religious and national-origin harassment in a case filed in Maryland federal court on behalf of Ebrima Jallow, an employee who is Gambian and Muslim.
According to the EEOC, the store manager (whose race is not specified in the EEOC complaint, but race-based harassment is not alleged) suggested "that people of Jallow’s national origin contributed to the enslavement of Africans in America," and that he should "go back to Africa." The manager also allegedly objected to hiring a Muslim and said that that "all Muslims do is blow up buildings and people."
In a written statement, Walmart said it "does not condone or tolerate discrimination or retaliation of any kind, and Mr. Jallow’s employment ended for legitimate business reasons."
Wells Fargo was hit with a sexual harassment suit, but in a twist, the alleged harassers—a supervisor and teller—are women, as are the alleged victims, four bank tellers in Reno, Nev., who said they "regularly faced graphic sexual comments, gestures and images" from the other women.
"Sexual harassment is illegal, regardless of whether the harasser is female or male, the same or opposite gender as the victim," EEOC San Francisco Regional Attorney William Tamayo said in a news release. "Federal law requires employers to protect their workers from harassment and sexual abuse, especially at the hands of a manager."
The suit was filed in Nevada federal court.
A Wells Fargo spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The EEOC’s sexual harassment suit against Red Lobster presented a more typical allegations: A manager pressed his groin against women, grabbed them, groped them and made sexually offensive comments. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.
In a written statement, Red Lobster said that it has "strong defenses" against the allegations. "The allegations relate to inappropriate conduct by a manager that occurred three years ago. We have a zero tolerance policy for any kind of harassment or discrimination. As soon as we were made aware of this situation in 2010, we investigated and terminated the manager responsible," the restaurant said.
Contact Jenna Greene at firstname.lastname@example.org.