The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission collected an all-time high of $535.4 million in monetary recoveries during the last fiscal year for workers alleging discrimination, while filing its second-lowest total of merit lawsuits in more than two decades, according to the agency’s annual financial report.
The workplace civil rights agency reported the record highs and lows during a fiscal year that was filled with uncertainty for workers and employers due to the global Covid-19 pandemic and a tumultuous presidential election campaign.
The agency’s Fiscal 2020 monetary recoveries include awards from settlements, mediation, and conciliation. EEOC lawsuits accounted for $106 million of the total, the highest amount it has obtained through litigation in over 15 years.
Landmark discrimination settlements from the past fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, include a $20.5 million pact with Jackson National Life Insurance Co., the largest obtained through agency litigation in more than 10 years.
EEOC Chair Janet Dhillon (R) credited the record recovery to agency staff efficiently processing worker charges of discrimination.
“When our inventory levels are manageable, investigators have the time to really dig in to meritorious charges, do more thorough investigations, do more analysis, and then they’re able to either conciliate those charges successfully, or hand them over to our litigators in a strong position,” Dhillon told Bloomberg Law in an interview.
The agency filed 93 merit lawsuits alleging discrimination during the last fiscal year, the second fewest number of merit suits filed annually since at least 1997. That included cases against Dillard’s Inc., The Kroger Co., and Yale New Haven Hospital. Merit lawsuits accuse employers of violating substantive provisions of federal anti-discrimination laws, or seek to enforce administrative settlements.
Dhillon attributed the drop in merit suits to the “ebb and flow” of litigation from year to year. She added that she prefers quality of lawsuits filed, over quantity.
“Cases have a cycle,” she said. “We’re moving through those cases and we’re resolving them, so our litigators were focused on that.”
Dhillon credited the year-end outcomes to “strategic investments” made to help agency staff, as well as the staff’s ability to “adapt to changing circumstances.”
The agency lowered its inventory of private-sector worker charges of discrimination to 41,951, a decrease of 3.7% from the prior fiscal year, according to the report.
Dhillon credited the decrease to a classification system that prioritizes charges workers submit to the agency, and to initial interviews EEOC staff members conduct with workers who are interested in submitting a discrimination charge to the agency.
“It’s helpful because it allows us to assess charges and to apply appropriate resources to charges,” she said of the classification system. “If we are managing our inventory correctly, we are setting up everybody in the agency for success.”
EEOC staff members previously expressed concerns about feeling pressured to quickly process and prioritize charges using the classification system, an issue that caught the attention of Congress.
The EEOC filed 51 fewer merit lawsuits during the last fiscal year as compared with the prior year.
The drop in litigation isn’t the most precipitous on record, however. From 2011 to 2012, the number of merit suits dropped from 261 to 122.
“To the extent that we are able to successfully conciliate charges when we find cause, the extent that we can successfully mediate charges, that’s a win-win,” she said. “But we know that we’re not always going to be able to do that, and Congress gave us litigation authority.”
“I’m also pleased by the results that our litigators got,” she added, “because if we can do a good job of identifying meritorious charges, conducting a good investigation, and giving our litigators a good body of work to work with, they’re going to be more successful.”