Learning & Development

Could Sexual Harassment Training Have Prevented This Controversial Ruling in the First Place?

In 2007, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued on behalf of a class of female tractor-trailer drivers against a large interstate trucking firm. But judges in two federal courts have now virtually thrown the case out.

What happened. CRST Van Expedited is the trucking firm, and one of its female trainees complained to EEOC of severe sexual harassment in 2005. CRST assigns just two drivers to some of its trucks for a period of up to 28 days, with the lead driver training and supervising the less-experienced one. At the end of the period, the lead decides whether the trainee should be promoted.

The trainee that contacted EEOC, related how two male lead drivers demanded sex in exchange for a passing grade and often made crude comments. Suspecting that such harassment was widespread, EEOC asked the court to make it a class action suit. And, it sent out thousands of letters to former CRST female drivers, eventually amassing a class of 270 women. Meanwhile, CRST fought the suit, demanding to know who was part of the class. The firm divulged harassment complaints from only four other women.

The court gave EEOC deadlines to close the class and to get depositions from all who wished to testify. Many did not, and the district court disqualified others. In August 2009, the judge agreed with CRST’s request to dismiss the claims of all the remaining women. He reasoned that EEOC had not gone through the proper steps to qualify to sue under a particular section of Title VII of federal civil rights law: It had not investigated each individual claim and had not given CRST a chance to settle each claim.

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Furthermore, the judge noted, many of the class members did not allege harassment until after EEOC had already filed its suit. He also charged EEOC $4.5 million for CRST’s legal expenses. EEOC appealed to the 8th Circuit, which covers Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

What the court said. Appellate judges split two to one on this case. The majority reversed the district judge on the suits of only two women and lifted EEOC’s obligation to pay CRST’s legal fees, because the agency can go forward with those two plaintiffs. EEOC + 3 intervenors v. CRST, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, Nos 09-3764, -3765/10-1682 (2012).

Points to remember: The dissenting judge noted that rulings by the 3rd (DE, NJ, PA) and 6th (KY, OH, MI, TN) Circuits did not align with this one. Further, the majority declined to see the lead drivers as supervisors, although they controlled the fate of the trainees.

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