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Court Imposes Rule 16(f)(1) Sanctions against EEOC for Causing Unnecessary Burdens and Delays

Posted in CASE SUMMARIES

EEOC v. The Original Honeybaked Ham Co. of Georgia, Inc., No. 11-cv-02560-MSK-MEH (D. Colo. Feb. 27, 2013)

Previously in this case, the court ordered broad discovery of the claimants’ social media, text messages and email.  (See a summary of that opinion, here.)  In this opinion, the court imposed sanctions for the EEOC’s actions which resulted in unnecessary delays and expense for the defendant, including actions related to the facilitation of the court ordered discovery.  Notably, the sanctions were imposed pursuant to Rule 16(f), based on the Tenth Circuit’s “broader” interpretation of its application.

Defendant moved for sanctions arguing that the EEOC had engaged in bad faith during discovery.  While ultimately declining to find bad faith, the court agreed that as to the discovery of emails, texts, etc., the EEOC had made “this endeavor more time consuming, laborious and adversarial than it should have been” and more specifically that the EEOC had been “[i]n certain respects … negligent in its discovery obligations, dilatory in cooperating with defense counsel, and somewhat cavalier in its responsibility to the United States District Court.”  Notably, the court repeatedly made clear its belief that the problems were caused not by the trial attorneys, but by “ ‘the powers that be’ (as Defendant describes them) in the higher echelons of the EEOC [who] keep interfering with the promises and commitments that the trial attorneys are making.”

Despite declining to go into great detail, the court noted, for example, that the EEOC had requested that the court allow it to use its own information technology personnel to engage in forensic discovery of the claimants’ social media, contrary to the court’s original order appointing a special master, but later “reneged on this representation,” causing the court and Defendant to “go back to the drawing board.”  The court also noted that after “lengthy negotiation and agreement with Defendant concerning the contents of a questionnaire … designed to assist in identifying the social media that would be forensically examined,” the EEOC “changed its position,” thus requiring the defendant to “pay its attorneys more than should have been required” and “multipl[ying] and delay[ing] these proceedings unnecessarily.”

As to the question of sanctions, the court acknowledged that a “hurdle” for Defendant was that while the EEOC’s conduct had been “inappropriate and obstreperous,” it did not “rise to a level that is sanctionable under most rules governing the litigation process,” including Rule 37.  Indeed, the court acknowledged that it had, “for some time, believed that the EEOC’s conduct was causing the Defendant to spend more money in this lawsuit than necessary,” but that it had “not known how to control it other than with criticism and veiled threats.”  Finally, however, the court discovered one remedy “that appears appropriate and necessary to me in this circumstance: a ‘sanction’ under Fed. R. Civ. P. 16(f)(1)” which, although seemingly limited on its face, has been given “a broader, more practical application” by the Tenth Circuit.

The court’s opinion quoted at length from the relevant Tenth Circuit case.  Sparing those details, the bottom line of the Tenth Circuit’s analysis was that the intent behind Rule 16(f) was “to give courts very broad discretion to use sanctions where necessary to insure not only that lawyers and parties refrain from contumacious behavior, already punishable under the various other rules and statutes, but that they fulfill their high duty to insure the expeditious and sound management of the preparation of cases for trial.”

In the present case, the court reasoned that the EEOC’s actions had “[w]ithout a doubt” “negatively affected the Court’s management of its docket” and “caused unnecessary burdens on the opposing party” and delays in the court’s own preparation of the case for trial.  Thus, citing the Tenth Circuit’s instruction that a court should “impose only so much of a sanction as is necessary to ensure that the offending conduct stop,” the court indicated its belief that “awarding Defendant its reasonable fees in prosecuting this Motion will suffice for that purpose” and went on to note that the sanction was imposed specifically “for the unnecessary waste” that the EEOC had caused.

A copy of the court’s opinion is available here.