A federal judge handed down an order last week telling the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to pay Cedar Rapids-based CRST Van Expedited Inc. $4.7 million in attorneys' fees and expenses that the trucking company racked up while fighting sexual harassment claims.
It was one of the largest fee awards ever demanded from the EEOC.
"This is either the final or the next to final episode in a very long saga," said Kevin Visser, an attorney with Simmons Perrines Moyer Bergmen in Cedar Rapids who represented CRST. "It's rare to hear of any fee awarded against the EOCC, let alone one of this magnitude."
The case goes back to 2007, when the EEOC brought a class-action lawsuit against the trucking company. The lawsuit came about after Monika Starke, a female truck driver at the company, filed a sexual harassment complaint.
But through a series of court rulings and dismissals from the EEOC, the original lawsuit was cut from 270 women seeking damages down to one — Starke.
U.S. District Judge Linda Reade of the Northern District of Iowa dismissed the complaint and ordered the EEOC to pay CRST $4.5 million in attorneys' fees and costs in 2012, describing the government agency's tactics as "sue first, ask questions later."
The EEOC appealed the ruling on behalf of 107 women to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, which found that the agency could still pursue relief for Starke and one other woman — whose claim the EEOC later dismissed. This ruling vacated Reade's initial damages ruling without prejudice — meaning CRST could re-file its claims, according to court records.
Starke's case eventually was settled for $50,000 in 2013, and CRST refiled claims for the time spent fighting the lawsuit.
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In the most recent order, Reade wrote "the EEOC cannot avoid liability for attorneys’ fees simply by artfully crafting a complaint using vague language to hide frivolous allegations."
“We are deeply disappointed in the decision and are considering next steps,” an EEOC spokeswoman told Law360, a law industry website, on Friday.CRST, with annual revenue of about $1.4 billion, employs more than 3,100.