Company's Breach of Earlier Consent Decree Led to Award to Federal Agency
CHICAGO - The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) today filed notice in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois that the Jewel-Osco chain of grocery stores has agreed to pay the EEOC $400,000 in attorneys' fees
The payment comes as the result of a Dec. 2, 2014 court order by Judge Ronald Guzman requiring the company to cover such costs. The award was part of the relief granted to the EEOC's Chicago District Office when it prevailed in a contempt
proceeding brought against the company for violations of a previously agreed upon consent decree.
That decree was entered to resolve prior EEOC litigation against the company under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), in which the agency charged that the company routinely failed to provide reasonable accommodations to employees seeking to return to work from a disability leave.
"The EEOC agrees to resolve litigation via consent decrees precisely because we expect that employers will recognize that their consent decree obligations have the force of law and simply must be obeyed, said EEOC General Counsel David Lopez. "It is gratifying that the court recognized that the EEOC - and the public - should not bear the cost of the employer's non-compliance."
After a three-day contempt hearing, Magistrate Michael Mason found that the company failed to comply with the decree's requirement that Jewel-Osco reasonably accommodate employees seeking to return to work from a disability leave, and Judge Guzman affirmed his findings in his December 2014 decision. The $400,000 payment comes on top of more than $82,000 that Jewel-Osco was ordered to pay to three affected employees who were not returned to work.
Because the federal laws against employment discrimination generally do not permit the EEOC to recover fees even where the agency prevails on a substantive claim of discrimination, it is rare for the agency to obtain fees for its work.
"These circumstances were unique," explained EEOC Regional Attorney John Hendrickson. "The contempt proceeding occurred only after Jewel-Osco accepted certain obligations to resolve serious discrimination claims brought by our office; memorialized the company's agreement in a consent decree, which was entered by the court; and then failed to comply with its obligations under that decree. Obviously, it is a situation that we hope will not be repeated - either by this employer or by any other. By reaching an agreement on the amount of fees and costs, we are hopeful that the EEOC and Jewel have now entered a new era of cooperation whereby Jewel will indeed fulfill its consent decree obligations. We appreciate that Jewel has communicated a renewed commitment to ADA compliance and we look forward to a productive partnership going forward."
Supervisory Trial Attorney Gregory Gochanour said, "The company's failures required that the EEOC invest significant time and money in the contempt proceeding. Paying the agency's fees and costs is essentially paying back public funds that could have been spent on other priorities if the company had lived up to its obligations under the decree."
Ethan Cohen, Deborah Hamilton, and Richard Mrizek of the EEOC's Chicago District Office litigated this matter on behalf of the Commission.
Jewel-Osco is owned by New Albertsons, Inc., and operates a large chain of grocery and drug stores in the Midwest.
The Chicago District Office is responsible for processing discrimination charges, administrative enforcement and the conduct of agency litigation in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and North and South Dakota, with Area Offices in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.
The EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal laws against employment discrimination. Further information is available at www.eeoc.gov.