Seventh Circuit Affirms Minors Are Not Parties Bound To Arbitrate Claims In GIPA Class Action

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Derek S. Franklin, and George J. Schaller

Duane Morris Takeaways: In Coatney, et al. v. Ancestry.com DNA, LLC, No. 22-2813, 2024 U.S. App. LEXIS 3584 (7th Cir. Feb. 15, 2024), the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Ancestry’s motion to compel arbitration on the grounds that minors were not parties to arbitration agreements entered by their guardians and the Defendant.  Circuit Judge Michael B. Brennan wrote the opinion of the Seventh Circuit panel.

For companies facing class actions under the Illinois Genetic Information Privacy Act (“GIPA”) involving alleged disclosure of confidential genetic information, this ruling is instructive on dispute resolution provisions and how drafting those provisions can dictate who is bound to arbitrate claims.

Case Background

Defendant, Ancestry.com DNA, LLC (“Ancestry”) is a genealogy and consumer genomics company that allows users to create accounts to purchase DNA test kits, which Ancestry collects consumer saliva samples.  Id. at 2.  Ancestry takes these samples, analyzes the genetic information, and then returns genealogical and health information to the purchaser through its website.  Id.  In 2020, Blackstone, Inc. acquired Ancestry.

Only adults may purchase or activate a DNA test kit, and purchasers must agree to Ancestry’s terms and conditions before purchasing and activating a test kit.  Id.  However, minors thirteen to eighteen years old may still use Ancestry’s DNA service as long as a parent or legal guardian purchases and activates the test kit, and sends in the minor’s saliva sample using an account managed by the child’s parent or guardian.  Id.

Between 2016 and 2019, guardians purchased and activated test kits on behalf of the Plaintiffs, who were all minors at the time.  Id. at 2-3.  Each guardian agreed to consent terms (“Terms”) concerning the use of each minor’s DNA test kit.  Id. at 3.  The terms contained a dispute resolution provision binding the parties to arbitration and waiving any class actions.  Id.  However, the Terms did not require Plaintiffs to read themPlaintiffs alleged that they did not, and that they also did not create the Ancestry accounts.  Id. at 4.

Plaintiffs, on behalf of themselves and a putative class of similar members, filed suit against Ancestry in Illinois federal court alleging violations of the Illinois GIPA.  Id.  Plaintiffs alleged that, as part of Blackstone’s 2020 acquisition of Ancestry, Ancestry disclosed genetic test results and personal identifying information to Blackstone without obtaining written authorization.  Id. 

Ancestry responded by moving to compel arbitration under the Terms dispute resolution provisions.  Id. at 5.  The district court denied Ancestry’s motion.  First, the district court found that Plaintiffs did not assent to Ancestry’s Terms through their guardians’ accounts or their guardians’ execution of consent forms on Plaintiffs’ behalf.  Id.  Second, the district court determined equitable principles such as the theory of direct benefits estoppel did not bind Plaintiffs, as there were no allegations that Plaintiffs accessed their guardians’ Ancestry accounts or their DNA test results.  Id. 

As a result, Ancestry filed an interlocutory appeal with the Seventh Circuit for review of the district court’s decision.  Id.

The Seventh Circuit’s Decision

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision.  On appeal, Ancestry urged the Seventh Circuit to reverse the district court’s denial of its motion to compel on three grounds, including: (1) Plaintiffs’ guardians assented to the Terms on their behalf; (2) Plaintiffs were “closely related” parties to their guardians (or even third-party beneficiaries), foreseeably bound by the Terms; or (3) as direct beneficiaries of the Terms, Plaintiffs were estopped from avoiding them.  Id. at 6.

At the outset, the Seventh Circuit reasoned that it is a “bedrock principle” that “an arbitration agreement generally cannot bind a non-signatory.”  Id. at 6-7.  The Seventh Circuit also explained that “whether an arbitration agreement is enforceable against a non-party is a question governed by ‘traditional principles of state law.’”  Id. at 7.

First, on Ancestry’s argument that Plaintiffs’ guardians assented to the Terms on Plaintiffs’ behalf, the Seventh Circuit determined that the Terms’ plain and ordinary meaning was unambiguous and found that the only parties to the agreement are the signatory and Ancestry.  Id.  Further, the Seventh Circuit noted that Terms stated they “are personal” to the signatory, who “may not … assign or transfer any … rights and obligations,” established by them.  Id.  The Seventh Circuit also found that the Terms contained no language that the guardians “agreed to them ‘on behalf of their children.”  Id. at 9.

Second, the Seventh Circuit rejected Ancestry’s argument that Plaintiffs may be contractually bound to the Terms “either as closely related parties or third-party beneficiaries.”  Id. at 11.  The Seventh Circuit opined that “[t]he company mounts these arguments from shaky legal ground, as Illinois ‘recognize[s] a strong presumption against conferring contractual benefits on non-contracting third parties.’”  Id.  With respect to Ancestry’s argument that Plaintiffs were bound by the Terms as “closely related” parties to their guardians who signed them, the Seventh Circuit determined that a special relationship in fact and in law between the Plaintiffs and their guardians as that relationship “does not join their identities, as can be the case with parent and subsidiary corporations.”  Id. at 12-14.  The Seventh Circuit similarly concluded that the Terms did not cover Plaintiffs as third-party beneficiaries since the express provisions of Ancestry’s Terms excluded third-party beneficiaries.  Id. at 12.  While the Seventh Circuit found that the Terms that contemplated consent to Ancestry’s processing and analysis of a child’s DNA, no aspect of that consent established that the Terms were for “plaintiffs direct benefit.”  Id. at 16.  In addition, the Terms’ arbitration provision did “not contain language capturing the plaintiffs.”  Id. at 17.  Instead, the provisions’ language indicated that the “signatories intended to bind themselves, but not others to arbitration.”  Id.

Finally, the Seventh Circuit rejected Ancestry’s argument that “[a]s direct beneficiaries of their guardians’ agreement to the Terms, Plaintiffs are estopped from avoid its arbitration provision.”  Id. at 18.  Noting the absence of legal authority supporting Ancestry’s argument, the Seventh Circuit concluded “that Illinois would not embrace direct benefits estoppel to bind plaintiffs here.”  Id. at 19.  The Seventh Circuit also based its conclusion on the absence of any record allegation that “plaintiffs have accessed or used the analyses completed by Ancestry as contemplated by the Terms” coupled with Illinois’ law “disfavoring the binding of non-signatories to arbitration.”  Id. at 25.

Implications For Companies

Companies that are confronted with GIPA class action litigation involving dispute resolution provisions should note the Seventh Circuit’s emphasis in Coatney on the lack of allegations that Plaintiffs read the contractual terms at issue, along with the absence of contractual language capturing or identifying Plaintiffs.

Further, from a practical standpoint, companies should carefully evaluate the language expressed in terms and conditions agreements, including those drafted in dispute resolution provisions, as courts are not inclined to assume non-signatories are bound to agreements when not expressly included.

Colorado Federal Court Rules That The EEOC May Seek Back Pay Claims In ADA Lawsuit Against Trucking Company

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Jennifer A. Riley, and George J. Schaller

Duane Morris Takeaways: In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Western Distributing Co., No. 1:16-CV-01727, 2024 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17225 (D. Colo. Jan. 31, 2024), Judge William J. Martinez of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado denied Defendant’s motion to dismiss for lack of standing and granted in part and denied in part Defendant’s motion to reconsider.  Both post-trial motions involved disparate impact claims for qualified disabled employees concerning Defendant’s return-to-work policies.  For employers facing EEOC-initiated lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act  of 1990 (the “ADA”) concerning employment policies, this decision is instructive in terms of the record evidence and filings courts will consider when deciding post-trial motions.

Case Background

On July 7, 2016, the EEOC filed suit on behalf of individuals with disabilities who worked for Defendant Western Distributing Co. (“Western”), a trucking company.  The EEOC alleged Western’s employment policies disparately impacted these individuals under the ADA.

Western’s policies required employees to return to work on a “full-duty” basis after medical leave; required certain drivers to static push and pull 130 pounds of weight; and required certain drivers to be able to static push and pull 130 pounds of weight at 58 inches above the ground.  Id. at 2.

In January 2023, a jury decided that Western’s “full-duty” policy had a disparate impact on disabled drivers.  The post-trial motions resulted from the jury’s decision and Western moved to dismiss for lack of standing (“Standing Motion”) and moved to reconsider the Court’s denial of its yet-to-be-filed Rule 50(b) motion (“Motion to Reconsider”).

Standing Motion

The Court denied Western’s Standing Motion.  In reviewing Western’s arguments, the Court determined Western put “great weight … on: (1) Senior U.S. District Judge Lewis T. Babcock’s Bifurcation Order; and (2) several statements by the EEOC’s counsel and the Court during the trial.” Id. at 2.

The Court found the obvious purpose of the bifurcation order was “(1) to give the parties a clear procedure for trying this action; and (2) to give the jury issues it can legally decide and reserve for the Court issues upon which it must rule.”  Id. at 3.  The Court reasoned that Judge Babcock’s bifurcation order “clearly contemplate[d] separate fact finding on ‘all individual claims and resultant damages’” and construing the order otherwise would be “unjust and border on absurd.”  Id. at 4.

As to the statements during trial, the Court concluded that “back pay is viewed as equitable relief . . . to be decided by the judge.” Id. at 3.  Therefore, the Court opined that it “will not ascribe to it the power to foreclose retrospective relief to which the EEOC and aggrieved individuals might be entitled.  Nor will the Court rule such relief is improper simply because the EEOC did not present any damages evidence to a jury that could not award equitable back pay.”  Id.  at 4.

Motion to Reconsider

The Court granted Western’s request to reconsider arguments raised in its initial Rule 50(a) motion.  The Court addressed Western’s arguments and denied each in full.

First, Western argued “the EEOC waived its Disparate Impact Claim to the extent it was based on the “full-duty policy” by failing to include this claim in its proposed “Challenge Standards” instruction.  Id. at 5.

The Court determined its order one month before trial on the EEOC’s motion for partial summary judgment included both the “full-duty and maximum leave policies ‘[as] two of the thirteen discriminatory standards, criteria, or methods of administration that form the basis of the Disparate Impact Claim.’”  Id. at 6.  The Court also reasoned that Western was aware of the need to defend against the full-duty policy given the “significant body of evidence Western in fact prepared and marshaled to do just that.”  Id.

Second, Western sought reconsideration concerning the adequacy of the evidence the EEOC presented at trial with respect to the existence of the full-duty policy and its disparate impact on qualified individuals with disabilities.  Id. at 7. The Court denied Western’s request to re-weigh the evidence as the jury during trial “was attentive, engaged, and clearly thoughtful in issuing a narrow verdict.”  Id. at 8.  As to the disparate impact portion, the Court highlighted that this portion was “a retread of one of Western’s rejected summary judgment arguments.”  Id.  at 7.  Therefore, the Court decided it would “not functionally reverse its own legal conclusions reached during the summary judgment phase.”  Id.  at 8.

For the same reasons, the Court denied Western’s third argument regarding statistical evidence of the 130-pound push/pull tests as a “re-tread” of an issue already decided  on summary judgment.  Id.  Finally, the Court denied Western’s argument because it “[was] merely a short summary of the arguments raised in the Standing Motion.”  Id.

Implications For Employers

Employers that are confronted with EEOC-initiated litigation involving employment policies should note that the Court relied heavily on the established record including prior issued orders, previous motions raising the same or similar arguments, and statements made by counsel at trial.

Further, from a practical standpoint, employers should carefully evaluate employment policies that may impact individuals with disabilities, as courts and juries are apt to scrutinize these materials.

California Court Dismisses Artificial Intelligence Employment Discrimination Lawsuit

By Alex W. Karasik, Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and George J. Schaller

Duane Morris Takeaways:  In Mobley v. Workday, Inc., Case No. 23-CV-770 (N.D. Cal. Jan 19, 2024) (ECF No. 45), Judge Rita F. Lin of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed a lawsuit against Workday involving allegations that algorithm-based applicant screening tools discriminated applicants on the basis of race, age, and disability. With businesses more frequently relying on artificial intelligence to perform recruiting and hiring functions, this ruling is helpful for companies facing algorithm-based discrimination lawsuits in terms of potential strategies to attack such claims at the pleading stage.

Case Background

Plaintiff, an African-American male over the age of forty with anxiety and depression, alleged that he applied to 80 to 100 jobs with companies that use Workday’s screening tools. Despite holding a bachelor’s degree in finance and an associate’s degree in network systems administration, Plaintiff claimed he did not receive not a single job offer. Id. at 1-2.

On July 19, 2021, Plaintiff filed an amended charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). On November 22, 2022, the EEOC issued a dismissal and notice of right to sue. On February 21, 2023, Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Workday, alleging that Workday’s tools discriminated against job applicants who are African-American, over the age of 40, and/or disabled in violation of Title VII, the ADEA, and the ADA, respectively.

Workday moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that Plaintiff failed to exhaust administrative remedies with the EEOC as to his intentional discrimination claims; and that Plaintiff did not allege facts to state a plausible claim that Workday was liable as an “employment agency” under the anti-discrimination statutes at issue.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted Workday’s motion to dismiss. First, the Court noted the parties did not dispute that Plaintiff’s EEOC charge sufficiently exhausted the disparate impact claims. However, Workday moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s claims for intentional discrimination under Title VII and the ADEA on the basis of his failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Workday argued that the EEOC charge alleged only claims for disparate impact, not intentional discrimination.

Rejecting Workday’s argument, the Court held that it must construe the language of the EEOC charge with “utmost liberality since they are made by those unschooled in the technicalities of formal pleading.” Id. at 5 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The Court acknowledged that the thrust of Plaintiff’s factual allegations in the EEOC charge concerned how Workday’s screening tools discriminated against Plaintiff based on his race and age. However, the Court held that those claims were reasonably related to his intentional discrimination claims, and that the EEOC investigation into whether the tools had a disparate impact or were intentionally biased would be intertwined. Accordingly, the Court denied Workday’s motion to dismiss on the basis of failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

Next, the Court addressed Workday argument that Mobley did not allege facts to state a plausible claim that it was liable as an “employment agency” under the anti-discrimination statutes at issue. The Court opined that Plaintiff did not allege facts sufficient to state a claim that Workday was “procuring” employees for these companies, as required for Workday to qualify as an “employment agency.” Id. at 1. For example, Plaintiff did not allege details about his application process other than that he applied to jobs with companies using Workday, and did not land any job offers. The complaint also did not allege that Workday helped recruit and select applicants.

In an attempt to salvage these defects at the motion hearing and in his opposition brief, Plaintiff identified two other potential legal bases for Workday’s liability — as an “indirect employer” and as an “agent.” Id. To give Plaintiff an opportunity to attempt to correct these deficiencies, the Court granted Workday’s motion to dismiss on this basis, but with leave for Plaintiff to amend. Accordingly, the Court granted in part and denied in part Workday’s motion to dismiss.

Implications For Businesses

Artificial intelligence and algorithm-based applicant screening tools are game-changers for companies in terms of streamlining their recruiting and hiring processes. As this lawsuit highlights, these technologies also invite risk in the employment discrimination context.

For technology vendors, this ruling illustrates that novel arguments about the formation of the “employment” relationship could potentially be fruitful at the pleading stage. However, the Court’s decision to let Plaintiff amend the complaint and have one more bite at the apple means Workday is not off the hook just yet. Employers and vendors of recruiting software would be wise to pay attention to this case  –and the anticipated wave of employment discrimination lawsuits that are apt to be filed – as algorithm-based applicant screening tools become more commonplace.

The Brave New World: President Biden Signs Executive Order On Use Of Artificial Intelligence 

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Alex W. Karasik, and George J. Schaller

Duane Morris Takeaways: On October 30, 2023, President Biden signed an Executive Order (the “EO”) providing guidance for employers on the emerging utilization of Artificial Intelligence in the workplace.  The EO establishes industry standards for AI security, innovation, and safety across significant employment sectors. Spanning over 100 pages, the robust EO endeavors to set parameters for responsible AI use, seeking to harness AI for good while mitigating risks associated with AI usage.

For businesses who utilize AI software in their employment decisions processes, the EO signifies a shift in beneficial versus harmful AI use and promotes a principled plan on advancing beneficial AI use.

Security, Innovation, And Safety With AI

AI’s significant developments in such a short period has required policymakers to keep up with the ever-changing AI landscape.  President Biden’s EO manifests the White House’s commitment to AI use in a safe and secure manner.  The EO also signals a commitment to promoting responsible innovation, competition, and collaboration to propel the United States to lead in AI and unlock the technology’s potential.  At the same time, the EO focuses on AI implications for workplaces and problematic AI usage.

AI And Employment Issues

In the White House’s continued dedication to advance equity and civil rights, the EO purports to commit to supporting American workers.  As AI creates new jobs and industries, the EO maintains that all workers should be included in benefiting from AI opportunities. As to the workplace, the EO asserts that responsible AI use will improve workers’ lives, positively impact human work, and help all to gain from technological innovation. Nonetheless, the EO opines that irresponsible AI use could undermine workers’ rights.

Further, protections to Americans who increasingly interact with AI are contemplated in the EO and signals that organizations will not be excused from legal obligations.  Chief among these protections are continued enforcement of existing safeguards against fraud, unintended bias, discrimination, infringements on privacy, and other harms from AI.  The White House seeks parity with the Federal Government in enforcement efforts and creating new appropriate safeguards against harmful AI use.

Significantly, within 180 days of issuing the EO, the Secretary of Labor is tasked with consulting with agencies and outside entities (including labor unions and workers) to develop and publish principles and best practices for employers to maximize AI’s potential benefits.  In so doing, the key principles and best practices are to address job-displacement, labor standards and job quality, and employer’s AI-related collection and use of worker data.  These principles and best practices further aim to prevent any harms to employees’ well-being.

Implications For Employers

This lengthy order should alert employers that AI is here to stay and the perils of AI use will change as the technology further augments the modern workforce.

As AI becomes more engrained in employment, employers should be mindful of the guidance developed in the EO and should stay up to date on any legislation that stems from AI usage. If businesses have not been paying attention to AI developments, now is the time to start.

D.C. Federal Court Denies Class Certification For COVID-19 Remote Learning Claims Due To Inadequacy Of The Class Representative

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Jennifer A. Riley, and George J. Schaller

Duane Morris Takeaways: In Gur-Ravantab, et al. v. Georgetown University, No. 1:22-CV-01038, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179493 (D.D.C. Oct. 5, 2023), Judge Trevor McFadden of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied Plaintiffs’ motion for class certification on the grounds that the named Plaintiff was neither an adequate representative of the proposed class nor even a member of it.  

For companies facing motions for certification motions in class actions, this decision is instructive in terms of considerations over the circumstances where a named plaintiff may fall short of satisfying the adequacy requirement under 23(a)(4). 

Case Background

The named Plaintiff, Emir Gur-Ravanatab (“Plaintiff”), was a Class of 2020 graduate of Georgetown University.  Id. at 1.  In March 2020 of his final semester, the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation.  Id. at 2.   Defendant, Georgetown University (“Defendant”), like many other schools, announced its transition to remote instruction for the rest of the Spring 2020 semester.  Id.

Plaintiff alleged that he entered a contract with the Defendant, and under that contract, Plaintiff paid tuition in exchange for a guarantee of “in-person classroom learning and other services.” Id. at 1-2.  Plaintiff alleged that there was a material difference in value between in-person and remote instruction. Therefore, despite Defendant’s transition to remote instruction, Plaintiff was never paid the difference.  Id. at 2.

Plaintiff alleged breach of an express and implied contract claims, and an unjust enrichment claim.  Id.  Plaintiff sought compensatory and punitive damages, and restitution for his claims.  Id.   He also moved to certify a class on behalf of other students who similarly formed contracts with Defendant and were enrolled as undergraduate students “during the Spring 2020 semester who paid tuition and Mandatory Fees.”  Id.  Plaintiff alleged the class covered roughly 7,300 other current and former university students.  Id.

The Court’s Decision

The Court denied Plaintiff’s motion for class certification. It held that the named Plaintiff was not an adequate representative of the class he proposed to certify nor even a member of the class.  Id. at 1.

The Court reasoned the requirements of all class action suits are well-settled under Rule 23.  Id. at 3.  These requirements are known as “numerosity,” “commonality,” “typicality,” and “adequacy.”  Id. at 4.    Additionally, the Court relied on U.S. Supreme Court precedent that “has ‘repeatedly held’ that ‘a class representative must be a part of the class and possess the same interest and suffer the same injury as the class members.’”  Id.  After a plaintiff and his proposed class satisfy those requirements, then the plaintiff and the proposed class must fall within one of the three “buckets” of class actions enumerated under Rule 23(b).  Id. at 4-5.  The Court found Plaintiff “stumbled before reaching Rule 23(b)” as he was “both an inadequate representative of the proposed class, and a non-member” of it.  Id. at 5.

The Court focused its ruling on the adequacy prong under Rule 23(a).  The Court opined that “[Plaintiff] does not share the same interests as the other class members, and indeed, has a potential conflict of interest with them,” and therefore is “not an adequate class representative.”  Id. at 7.  Plaintiff suffered two problems, including: (i) Plaintiff’s mother is an employee of the university; and (ii) Plaintiff did not personally pay tuition or mandatory fees.  Id. at 7-8.  Therefore, the Court determined “he lack[ed] the kind of concrete stake in the outcome of th[e] litigation necessary to be the vigorous advocate the class is entitled to.”

As to potential class conflicts, Plaintiff’s mother was a Turkish language instructor with the university, and hence he had a close familial relationship to a person who may be harmed by a judgment against the university.  Id. at 8.  Further, Plaintiff testified in his deposition that his parents, including his mother “exert a ‘pretty major’ influence over his decisions.”  Id.  The Court reasoned that “Rule 23 requires that class representatives be able to engage in arm’s-length dealings with the opposing side” and Plaintiff did not meet that standard.  Id.  However, the Court acknowledged that this conflict on its own “would not be enough, standing on its own, to defeat adequacy,” but other problems persisted. Id.

Plaintiff’s second problem was he did not share the same interest in this case as the other class members.  Id.  Plaintiff “sued for a refund of the difference in value between the education he paid for and the one he got,” but Plaintiff “did not pay for an education at all.”  Id.  The Court considered Plaintiff’s student account as the operative measure for educational payments.  Id. at 8-11.

On balance, the Court construed the student account two ways. Either, Plaintiff did “not pay [Defendant] a dime,” Id. at 9, or Plaintiff “got more money out of [Defendant] that semester than he put in.”  Id. at 11.  Based on the Court’s reasoning, both accountings lead to the same problem, i.e., that Plaintiff “will likely have no compensatory damages to claim,” and “without compensatory damages, [Plaintiff] cannot claim punitive damages either.” Id.  Therefore, the Court held that Plaintiff could not obtain meaningful relief, and thus, “he lack[ed] ‘the incentive to represent the claims of the class vigorously.’”  Id.   As a result of Plaintiff owing no money towards tuition and Mandatory Fees, the Court found he “quite simply is not a member of the proposed class.”  Id. 

The Court further discussed the second named Plaintiff, Emily Lama, and her exclusion from the class as well because she was “enrolled as a graduate student during the Spring 2020 Semester,” meaning she also did not fit the undergraduate class description.  Id. at 11-12.

Accordingly, as there was no named Plaintiff to represent the class, the Court denied Plaintiffs’ motion for class certification.  Id. at 12.  

Implications For Companies

Companies confronted with motions for class certification should take note that the court in Gur-Ravantab relied on Plaintiffs’ inability to adequately represent the class based on a fact intensive analysis that disqualified the named Plaintiff as a suitable class representative.  Further, from a practical standpoint, companies should carefully evaluate class representatives for unique characteristics that are distinguishable from the proposed class.

EEOC’s September Spree Of Filings Caps Off Landmark Year In FY 2023

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Alex W. Karasik, George J. Schaller, and Jennifer A. Riley

Duane Morris Takeaways:  In FY 2023, the EEOC’s litigation enforcement activity showed that any previous slowdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic is well in the rearview mirror, as the total number of lawsuits filed by the EEOC increased from 97 in 2020 to a whopping total of 144 in FY 2023. Per tradition, September 2023 was a busy month for EEOC-Initiated litigation, as this month marks the end of the EEOC’s fiscal year. This year, 67 lawsuits were filed September, up from the 39 filed in September of FY 2022.

Overall, the FY 2023 lawsuit filing data confirms that EEOC litigation is back in full throttle, with no signs of slowing down. Employers should take heed. Amplifying that activism, the Commission issued a press release at the end of the fiscal year touting its increased enforcement litigation activity, a somewhat unprecedented media statement that the EEOC has never issued in previous years.

Lawsuit Filings Based On EEOC District Offices

In addition to tracking the total number of filings, we closely monitor which of the EEOC’s 15 district offices are most actively filing new cases over the year and throughout September. Some districts tend to be more aggressive than others, and some focus on different case filing priorities. The following chart shows the number of lawsuit filings by EEOC district offices.

In FY 2023, Philadelphia District Office had by far the most lawsuit filings with 19, followed by Indianapolis and Chicago with 13 filings, and New York and Los Angeles each with 10 filings. Charlotte, Atlanta, Dallas, Phoenix, and Memphis had 9 each,  Houston had 8, Miami, Birmingham, and St. Louis had 7 each, and San Francisco had 5 filings.

The most noticeable trend of FY 2023 is the filing deluge in Philadelphia (19 lawsuits), compared to FY 2022 where Philadelphia District Office filed 7 lawsuits. Similarly, Indianapolis ramped up its filings compared to the 7 filings from FY 2022.  Like FY 2022, Chicago remained steady near the top of the list again with 13 filings.  Los Angeles, had a slight increase, based on the 8 filings it had in FY 2022.  Going another direction, Miami filings slightly fell compared to its 8 filings in FY 2022.   Finally, both New York and Charlotte increased their filings from FY 2022, with New York substantially increasing from 7, and Charlotte moderately increasing from 7 filings.

The balance across various District Offices throughout the country confirms that the EEOC’s aggressiveness is in peak form, both at the national and regional level.

Lawsuit Filings Based On Type Of Discrimination

We also analyzed the types of lawsuits the EEOC filed, in terms of the statutes and theories of discrimination alleged, in order to determine how the EEOC is shifting its strategic priorities.

When considered on a percentage basis, the distribution of cases filed by statute remained roughly consistent compared to FY 2023 and FY 2022. Title VII cases once again made up the majority of cases filed, making up 68% of all filings (down from the 69% filings in FY 2022, and significantly above 61% in FY 2021). ADA cases also made up a significant percentage of the EEOC’s September filings, totaling 34%, in line with 29.7% in FY 2022, although down from the 37% in FY 2021. There were also 12 ADEA cases filed in FY 2023, after 7 age discrimination cases filed in FY 2022.

The graphs below show the number of lawsuits filed according to the statute under which they were filed (Title VII, Americans With Disabilities Act, Pregnancy Discrimination Act, Equal Pay Act, and Age Discrimination in Employment Act) and, for Title VII cases, the theory of discrimination alleged.

Lawsuits Filings Based On Industry

The graphs below show the number of lawsuits filed by industry.  Three industries were the primary targets of lawsuit filings in FY 2023:  Restaurants with 28 filings, Retail with 24 filings, and Healthcare with 24 filings.  Not far off those industries are Manufacturing with 15 filings; Construction with 7 filings; Automotive, Security, and Transportation with 6 filings each; and Technology with 5 filings.

Hospitality and Healthcare employers should be keenly aware of the EEOC’s enforcement of alleged discriminatory practices in these sectors.  But in reality, employers in nearly any industry are vulnerable to EEOC-initiated litigation., as detailed by the below graph.

Looking Ahead To Fiscal Year 2024

Moving into FY 2024, the EEOC’s budget includes a $26.069 million increase from 2023, and focuses on six key areas including advancing racial justice and combatting systemic discrimination on all protected bases; protecting pay equity; supporting diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA); addressing the use of artificial intelligence in employment decisions and preventing unlawful retaliation.

The EEOC also announced goals for its own Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accesibility (DEIA) program where it seeks to achieve four goals, including workplace diversity, employee equity, inclusive practices, and accessibility. Additionally, the EEOC continues to polish its FY 2021 software initiatives addressing artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other emerging technologies in continued efforts to provide guidance.  Finally, the joint anti-retaliation initiative among the EEOC, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the National Labor Relations Board will continue to address retaliation in American workplaces.

Key Employer Takeaways

In sum, FY 2023 was a year of new leadership and structural changes at the EEOC.  With a significantly increased proposed budget, it is more crucial than ever for employers pay close attentions in regards to the EEOC’s strategic priorities and enforcement agendas.  We anticipate these figures will grow by next year’s report, so it is more crucial than ever for employers to comply with discrimination laws.

Arizona Federal Court Grants Pest Control Company’s Motion To Dismiss Data Breach Class Claims

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Jennifer A. Riley, and George J. Schaller

Duane Morris Takeaways: In Gannon v. Truly Nolen of America Inc., No. 22-CV-428 (D. Ariz. Aug. 31, 2023), Judge James Soto of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss with prejudice on negligence, breach of contract, and consumer fraud claims related to a data breach class action. For companies facing data breach claims in class actions, this decision is instructive in terms of how courts consider cognizable damages, especially when damages allegations are inadequately plead.

Case Background

Defendant Truly Nolen of America Inc. (“Defendant” or the “Company”), is an Arizona corporation that provides pest control services across the United States and in 30 countries around the world.  Id. at 2.  The Company experienced a data breach between April 29, 2022 and May 11, 2022.  On May 11, 2022, the Company learned the breach occurred and identified personally identifiable information (“PII”) and personal health information (“PHI”) that was compromised.  Id.  In August of 2022, Defendant sent notice letters to individuals whose data may have been compromised.  Id.  

The Named Plaintiff, Crystal Gannon (“Plaintiff”), alleged that she received her notice letter regarding the data breach in August of 2022.  Id. at 3.  In her First Amended Complaint (“FAC”), Plaintiff sought to represent two proposed classes of plaintiffs, including one for a Nationwide Class and one for an Arizona Sub-class, related to the data breach.  Id.

Plaintiff alleged numerous claims such as negligence, invasion of privacy, breach of implied contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and violation of the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act (“Fraud Act”).  Id.  In response, Defendant filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that Plaintiff’s case was without basis and the entire case was subject to dismissal.  Id.

The Court’s Decision

The Court held that there was no valid basis for Plaintiff’s negligence claim.  Id. at 4.  Plaintiff argued that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”) and the Federal Trade Commission Act (“FTCA”) created a duty in Arizona from which relief could be sought.  Id.  The Court disagreed. It found that neither the HIPAA nor the FTCA provided a private right of action.  Id.  The Court reasoned that “[p]ermitting HIPAA to define the ‘duty and liability for breach is no less than a private action to enforce HIPAA, which is precluded.’”  Id.  The Court applied the same logic to the FTCA.  Id.

On negligence damages, the Court held that Plaintiff’s FAC failed “to show identity theft or loss in continuity of healthcare of any class members – only the possibility of each.”  Id.  Under Arizona law, negligence damages require more than merely a threat of future harm, and on their own, threats of future harm are not cognizable negligence injuries.  Id. 4-5.  Similarly, as to out-of-pocket expenses, the Court opined that Plaintiff failed to demonstrate that her expenses were necessary because she did not properly show that Defendant’s identity monitoring services were inadequate.  Id. at 5.  Finally, the Court recognized that merely alleging a diminution in value to somebody’s PII or PHI was insufficient.  Id.  Therefore, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s negligence claims.

Turning to Plaintiff’s breach of contract claims, the Court determined that Plaintiff did not show cognizable damages, a reasonable construction for the terms of the contract, or consideration for the existence of an implied contract.  Id. at 6. The Court held that Plaintiff’s FAC allegations only reflected speculative damages and did not allege proof of real damages.  Id. at 5.  The Court opined that Plaintiff’s “vaguely pleaded” contract terms failed to show any language that would inform the terms of the agreement and Plaintiff did not point to any conduct or circumstances from which the terms could be determined.  Id. at 5-6.  Finally, the Court determined that even if Defendant had an obligation to protect the data at issue, such pre-existing obligations did not serve as consideration for a contract.  Id.  Therefore, the Court dismissed all breach of implied contract claims.  Id.

On the claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, Plaintiff argued that Defendant breached by failing to maintain adequate computer systems and data security practices, failed to timely and adequately disclose the data breach, and inadequately stored PII and PHI.  Because Plaintiff failed to show an enforceable promise, the Court held there could be no breach, and all claims for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing were dismissed.  Id. at 6.

The Court also dismissed Plaintiff’s Fraud Act claims because Plaintiff failed to show cognizable damages.  Id. at 7.  The Court reasoned “[p]laintiff cannot simply argue that the system is inadequate because a negative result occurred.”  Id.  The Court also reasoned that Plaintiff failed to demonstrate that Defendant’s security was inadequate when compared to other companies or any set of industry standards. Id.  As to Plaintiff’s privacy claims, the Court held that there were no cognizable claims for invasion of privacy or breach of privacy, and Plaintiff did not dispute these claims in her response.  Id.

Accordingly, the Court granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss as to all claims, denied Plaintiff leave to amend her complaint, and dismissed the case with prejudice. Id.

Implications For Companies

Companies confronted with data breach lawsuits should take note that the Arizona federal court in Gannon relied heavily on inadequately pleaded allegations in considering cognizable damages for purposes of granting Defendant’s motion to dismiss. Further, from a practical standpoint, companies should carefully evaluate pleadings for insufficient or speculative assertions on damages.

Key Takeaways From The EEOC’s Strategic Plan For Fiscal Years 2022-2026

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Alex W. Karasik, and George J. Schaller

Duane Morris Takeaways: On August 22, 2023, the EEOC announced the approval its Strategic Plan (“SP”) for Fiscal Years 2022-2026.  The Strategic Plan can be accessed here.  The SP furthers the EEOC’s mission of preventing and remedying unlawful employment discrimination and advancing equal employment opportunity for all.  The SP focuses on: (1) Enforcement; (2) Education and Outreach; and (3) Organizational Excellence. The SP also provides performance measures for each strategic goal.  For corporate counsel involved in employment-related compliance and EEOC litigation, the new SP is required reading.

The EEOC’s Strategic Priorities

  1. Enforcement

The EEOC continues to promote equitable employment initiatives through its enforcement authority.  The SP highlights the EEOC’s primary mission of preventing unlawful employment discrimination through its administrative and litigation enforcement mechanisms, and adjudicatory and oversight processes.  The main strategic focus for employing these mechanisms is through fair and efficient enforcement based on the circumstances of each charge or complaint while maintaining a balance of meaningful relief for victims of discrimination.

As to enforcement, the SP provides a broad overview of the EEOC’s efforts to allocate its resources to ensure its efforts in stopping unlawful employment discrimination.  To that end, the EEOC indicates that it will continue its targeting of systemic discrimination through training staff on systemic cases and devoting additional resources to systemic litigation enforcement.  The SP included several performance measures for achieving enforcement goals, including measures on conciliation and litigation resolution, favorably resolving lawsuits, and increasing capacity for systemic investigations.

  1. Education and Outreach

The SP prioritizes education and outreach for deterring employment discrimination before it occurs.  The SP focuses on providing education and outreach programs, projects, and events as cost-effective tools for enforcement.  Primarily these programs are aimed at individuals who historically have been subjected to employment discrimination.  Part of the EEOC’s education and outreach involves expanding use of technology through social media, ensuring the EEOC website is more user-friendly and accessible, and leveraging technology to reach the agency’s audience.

These efforts to improve on education and outreach are aimed at promoting public awareness of employment discrimination laws while maintaining information and guidance for employers, federal agencies, unions, and staffing agencies.  The SP provides an in-depth list of measuring education and outreach by utilizing technology to expand the EEOC’s audience and ensuring accessible delivery of information through events, programs, and up-to-date website accessibility and functionality.

  1. Organizational Excellence

The SP makes clear that organizational excellence is the cornerstone of achieving the EEOC’s strategic goals.  The SP confirms that the EEOC aims to improve on its culture of accountability, inclusivity, and accessibility.  In addition, the EEOC seeks to continue protecting the public and advancing civil rights in the workplace by ensuring its resources are allocated properly to strengthen intake, outreach, education, enforcement, and service.

The EEOC’s organizational excellence strategic goal has two prongs, including improving the training of EEOC employees and enhancing the EEOC’s infrastructure.  For employees, the EEOC seeks to foster enhanced diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the workplace, maintain employee retention, and implement leadership and succession plans.  Relative to the agency’s infrastructure, the SP embraces the increased use of technology through analytics, and management of fiscal resources promote the agency’s mission of serving the public.

Implications For Employers

The EEOC’s SP is an important publication for employers since it previews immediate action areas.  The SP’s focus on systemic discrimination, conciliation, and litigation, and increasing the Commission’s capacity for litigating alleged systemic violations shows the EEOC is ramping up to improve handling all aspects of charges.  The EEOC’s increased focus on technology and employment discrimination awareness similarly shows accessibility will continue to be a pillar of the agency.  Accordingly, prudent employers should be mindful of these strategic priorities, and prepare themselves for continued EEOC enforcement.

Maryland Federal Court Issues Arrest Warrant In EEOC Sex Bias Suit

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Alex W. Karasik, and George J. Schaller

Duane Morris Takeaways: In EEOC v. Above All Odds, LLC, No. 1:21-CV-02492 (D. Md. Aug. 15, 2023) (ECF No. 50), a federal district court in Maryland issued an arrest warrant for an ex-executive of a company involved in an EEOC lawsuit. The EEOC alleged that the ex-executive sexually harassed employees of a mental health clinic. The Court issued the  arrest warrant due to the ex-executive refusal to cooperate in the case and with discovery orders.

For employers facing EEOC-initiated lawsuits, the issuance of an arrest warrant is a novel development but informative in terms of the perils of continuously ignoring court orders. 

Case Background

The EEOC initiated this lawsuit on behalf of three former workers, Bricciana Strickland, Shana Hanson, and Saidah Feyijinmi, of Above All Odds, LLC (“Company”) and the Company’s co-founder, Raymond Dorsey, alleging a pattern of sexual harassment of female employees.  (Compl. at 1).

Strickland alleged Dorsey sent text messages asking for a date, and when she refused, Dorsey responded by stating he could fire her from her position.  Id. at 5-6. Hanson alleged Dorsey made repeated unwanted sexual advances including Dorsey asking if he could rub her back, sending an email with pornographic content, and throwing condoms on her desk.  Id. at 7. Feyijinmi alleged she saw Dorsey throw condoms on Hanson’s desk.  Id. at 8. Together, Hanson and Feyijinmi reported Dorsey’s sexual harassment to the Company’s senior management. Id. at 7.

Strickland continued to reject Dorsey’s advances and was demoted, and ultimately Dorsey ordered members of management staff to terminate her.  Id. at 6. Hanson was terminated in response to reporting Dorsey’s conduct.  Id. at 7. Feyjinmi was presented with a new contract of employment that lowered her salary and required her to work two positions, and after she requested time to review the contract before signing, the company terminated her before she had the opportunity to sign her contract.  Id. at 8-9.

The Arrest Warrant

Throughout the course of the lawsuit, Dorsey failed to respond to the EEOC’s complaint and ignored several show cause orders directing him to appear in court.  Subsequently, the court found Dorsey in contempt of court in June 2023.

Dorsey also ignored a subpoena to appear in the case brought by the EEOC.  Thereafter, the court authorized the arrest of Raymond Dorsey and issued an arrest warrant on August 15, 2023.

Implications For Employers

Employers that are confronted with EEOC-initiated litigation involving allegations of a pattern of sexual harassment should note that ignoring court filings, court proceedings, and orders issued by the court, may result in the court taking action.  In this instance, the court relied on the ex-executive’s lack of response to pleadings, court orders, and subpoenas leading to the court issuing an arrest warrant.  While the issuance of arrest warrants is rare in litigation, this development illustrates that court orders should not be taken lightly.

 

EEOC Settles Its First Discrimination Lawsuit Involving Artificial Intelligence Hiring Software

By Alex W. Karasik, Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and George J. Schaller

Duane Morris Takeaways: InEqual Employment Opportunity Commission v. ITutorGroup, Inc., et al., No. 1:22-CV-2565 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 9, 2023), the EEOC and a tutoring company filed a Joint Settlement Agreement and Consent Decree in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, memorializing a $365,000 settlement for claims involving hiring software that automatically rejected applicants based on their age. This is first EEOC settlement involving artificial intelligence (“AI”) software bias. As we previously blogged about here, eradicating discrimination stemming from AI software is an EEOC priority that is here to stay. For employers who utilize AI software in their hiring processes, this settlement highlights the potential risk of legal and monetary exposure when AI software generates hiring decisions that disparately impact applicants from protected classes.

Case Background

Defendants iTutorGroup, Inc., Shanghai Ping’An Intelligent Education Technology Co., LTD, and Tutor Group Limited (collectively “Defendants”) hired tutors to provide English-language tutoring to adults and children in China.  Id. at *3.  Defendants received tutor applications through their website.  The sole qualification to be hired as a tutor for Defendants is a bachelor’s degree.  Additionally, as part of the application process, applicants provide their date of birth.

On May 5, 2022, the EEOC filed a lawsuit on behalf of Wendy Pincus, the Charging Party, who was over the age of 55 at the time she submitted her application.  The EEOC alleged that Charging Party provided her date of birth on her application and was immediately rejected.  Accordingly, the EEOC alleged that Defendants violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”) for programming its hiring software to reject female applicants over 55 years old and male applicants over 60 years old.  Id. at *1. Specifically, the EEOC alleged that in early 2020, Defendants failed to hire Charging Party, Wendy Pincus, and more than 200 other qualified applicants age 55 and older from the United States because of their age.  Id.

The Consent Decree

On August 9, 2023, the parties filed a “Joint Notice Of Settlement Agreement And Requested Approval And Execution Of Consent Decree,” (the “Consent Decree.”).  Id.  The Consent Decree confirmed that the parties agreed to settle for $365,000, to be distributed to tutor applicants who were allegedly rejected by Defendants because of their age, during the time period of March 2020 through April 2020.  Id. at 15.  The settlement payments will be split evenly between compensatory damages and backpay.  Id. at 16.

In terms of non-monetary relief, the Consent Decree also requires Defendants to provide anti-discrimination policies and complaint procedures applicable to screening, hiring, and supervision of tutors and tutor applicants.  Id. at 9.  Further, the Consent Decree requires Defendants to provide training programs on an annual basis for all supervisors and managers involved in the hiring process.  Id. at 12-13.  The Consent Decree, which will remain in effect for five years, also contains reporting requirements and record-keeping requirements.  Most notably, the Consent Decree contains a monitoring requirement, which allows the EEOC to inspect the premises and records of the Defendants, and conduct interviews with the Defendant’s officers, agents, employees, and independent contractors to ensure compliance.

Implications For Employers

To best deter EEOC-initiated litigation involving AI in the hiring context, employers should review their AI software upon implementation to ensure applicants are not excluded based on any protected class.  Employers should also regularly audit the use of these programs to make sure the AI software is not resulting in adverse impact on applicants in protected-category groups.

This significant settlement should serve as a cautionary tale for businesses who use AI in hiring and are not actively monitoring its impact.  The EEOC’s commitment to its Artificial Intelligence and Algorithmic Fairness Initiative is in full force.  If businesses have not been paying attention, now is the time to start.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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