Sixth Circuit Reverses Cintas Pattern-or-Practice Case

Last week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed summary judgment orders in a Title VII sex discrimination case against Cintas Corporation, holding that the EEOC (the intervening plaintiff) should have been allowed to pursue a pattern-or-practice claim under §706 of Title VII using the analytical framework set forth in Int’l Brotherhood of Teamsters v. United States, 431 U.S. 324 (1977). The decision rejects the notion that the Teamsters framework can only be used in cases brought under § 707 of Title VII, paving the way for the EEOC to pursue pattern-and-practice claims under § 706, which allows for the recovery of punitive and compensatory damages.

In Serrano et al. v. Cintas Corp., the EEOC challenged hiring practices used for women who applied to work as truck-driving sales representatives in Michigan. The district court dismissed the EEOC’s pattern-or-practice claim on the grounds that the agency pled the claim under § 706 rather than § 707, which provides specific authorization for such claims. The district court also granted summary judgment for Cintas on thirteen individual claims that the EEOC had pursued, analyzing them under the McDonnell-Douglas framework.

The Sixth Circuit held that the analytical framework set forth in Teamsters could be used in § 706 cases as an alternative means of proving discrimination, and that Teamsters did not set forth an easier standard of proof, but simply a different standard for proving discrimination. The Court further held that the EEOC was not required to plead whether it intended to use the Teamsters framework, citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Swierkiewicz v. Sorema, N.A., 534 U.S. 506 (2002) holding that plaintiffs are not required to indicate at the pleading stage which evidentiary framework they plan to use. The Court expressly stated that Swierkiewicz was not overturned by the Supreme Court’s decisions in Twombly and Iqbal.

After finding that the EEOC was allowed to pursue its pattern-or-practice claim under § 706, it vacated summary judgment on the thirteen individual claims, remanding with instructions to analyze the claims under the Teamsters framework.

Given President Obama’s reelection last week, and the aggressive enforcement agenda of the EEOC, employers are likely to see the EEOC increasingly pursuing pattern-and-practice claims, even where not specifically alleged in a complaint. This case was closely watched by the employment law community and the EEOC itself. The Commission suffered a number of procedural court defeats in 2012, especially before the 8th Circuit in EEOC v. CRST. EEOC General Counsel David Lopez had personally involved himself in the Cintas appeal and has already trumpeted the EEOC’s victory.