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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. International Profit Associates

March 16, 2007

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, PLAINTIFF,
v.
INTERNATIONAL PROFIT ASSOCIATES, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Joan B. Gottschall

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

This case is an employment discrimination suit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 253 (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (2006)) ("Title VII") and the Civil Rights Act of 1991, 105 Stat. 1072 (codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1981a (2006)). The EEOC alleges that, since at least 1991,*fn1 defendant International Profit Associates, Inc. ("IPA") has engaged in an ongoing pattern or practice of unlawful employment activities at its business facilities in Illinois. Specifically, the EEOC accuses IPA of discrimination on the basis of sex, alleging that IPA's female employees were subjected to a hostile and abusive work environment because they were exposed to severe and pervasive sexual harassment at IPA. The EEOC also alleges that many women at IPA were threatened with or offered certain employment actions contingent on their performance of sexual favors. According to the EEOC, IPA was aware that the sexual harassment was occurring but failed to take adequate steps to correct the social climate in its offices. The EEOC filed this suit on behalf of two named plaintiffs and a class of female IPA employees, seeking injunctive relief as well as compensatory and punitive damages.*fn2

Each party currently has a motion pending before the court. First, IPA has moved for summary judgment, arguing that certain of the individual claimants who are included in the EEOC's class cannot, as a matter of law, prevail on their Title VII claims.*fn3 For the reasons that follow, the court denies IPA's motions for summary judgment without prejudice. The parties' briefs are hopelessly confused, and demonstrate that a controlling dispute with regard to IPA's motions is not factual, but rather centers on the parties' differing conceptions of what type of case this is, what methods of proof apply, and how it should be tried. After reviewing the parties' briefs, the court concludes that it is necessary to establish the appropriate legal framework for the trial before ruling on IPA's motions. This opinion resolves a limited number of legal disputes and frames the relevant questions so that the parties can provide useful input on the remaining issues.

The parties are ordered to provide additional briefing as discussed below. Once the court determines the legal framework that will govern the trial of this case, it will set a new deadline for dispositive motions and the parties may file (or, in IPA's case, perhaps renew) any summary judgment motions that have merit under the legal standard set forth by the court.

The second matter before the court is the EEOC's objections to the magistrate judge's order denying its motion to compel. Because the EEOC's objections are pertinent to the briefing on IPA's motions, the court rules on them here as well. The court concludes that the magistrate judge erred in denying the EEOC's motion; it therefore reverses the magistrate judge's order and grants the EEOC's motion to compel the deposition of Suzanne Edwards.

I. BACKGROUND

As noted, the primary arguments raised in the parties' briefs hinge on legal issues, and it is not necessary for the court to engage in an in-depth discussion of the facts. The purpose of this section is merely to present an overview of the case in order to provide context for the court's ruling.*fn4

IPA is an Illinois corporation engaged in business analysis and consulting work. Its headquarters are in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. Since 1998, virtually all of IPA's employees have worked at IPA's facilities in Buffalo Grove, which consist of two separate office buildings. In the first building are IPA's telemarketers (also known as "business coordinators" or simply "BCs") and recruiters. The second building houses IPA's management, human resources department, survey department, inside sales department, consulting department, payroll and accounting department, and clerical support. IPA also employs outside sales representatives, who operate primarily as field representatives and thus do most of their work outside of IPA's business facilities.

The basic structure of IPA's business is as follows. Business coordinators, working via telephone from their offices in Buffalo Grove, set up appointments for outside sales representatives to meet agents of companies with whom IPA wants to conduct business. At these meetings, the outside sales representatives attempt to sell the companies analyses, or surveys, of their businesses, to be conducted by IPA. If an outside sales representative is successful, then IPA sends a survey analyst (also referred to as a "business analyst") to conduct the analysis. If the outside sales representative is unsuccessful, an inside sales representative in Buffalo Grove will attempt to make the sale. After a business analyst completes a survey of a company, the business analyst tries to sell the company consulting hours. If the sale is made, then IPA sends a business consultant to continue working with the company.

The majority of the claimants in this lawsuit were employed either as business coordinators or as inside sales representatives at IPA's Buffalo Grove offices. IPA has a very high turnover rate, particularly in its business coordination department, due to the fast paced and high-pressure environment. IPA employs between 300 and 450 BCs at any given time; according to IPA, it hires approximately 2,000 individuals annually to maintain its business coordination department alone. Company-wide, IPA has hired more than 40,000 employees since 1991.

The EEOC is the federal agency charged with the administration, interpretation, and enforcement of Title VII. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-5, 2000e-6 (2006). This case began in 1998 when two female former IPA employees filed charges with the EEOC complaining that IPA had engaged in unlawful employment practices. After investigating the claims, the EEOC determined that there was reasonable cause to believe that a pattern or practice of sexual discrimination existed at IPA, and ultimately filed the instant suit on behalf of the two women complainants as well as a class of female employees who allegedly were also adversely affected by the unlawful employment practices.*fn5

The EEOC accuses IPA of a wide spectrum of severe sexual harassment. The conduct alleged by the EEOC ranges from demeaning insults to sexual assault, and everything in between. According to the EEOC, women at IPA were regularly propositioned for sex, offered job benefits contingent on the performance of sexual acts (and threatened with negative consequences if they did not agree), and even offered money for sex. More than forty women reported being sexually assaulted in one manner or another - the behavior complained of consists of everything from slapping, pinching, touching, and grabbing to outright attempted rape. Women were regularly subjected to offensive sexual comments in the workplace, including explicit observations regarding their appearance and sexual jokes. Sexually offensive and derogatory language was commonly used by male employees, both in general and directed at female employees. Male employees exposed themselves to female employees. Graphic pornography was displayed on office walls. Strippers and prostitutes were hired to perform for male employees' birthday parties at IPA's offices during business hours. In short, the EEOC alleges that severe sexual harassment was part of the culture at IPA.

Not only was the sexual harassment at IPA severe, but, according to the EEOC, it was also pervasive and existed at all levels and departments of the company. The EEOC asserts that the conduct described above was perpetrated by a large number of male IPA employees, including both the claimants' managers and their co-workers. Indeed, the EEOC details a variety of egregious behavior engaged in by IPA's managing director (a man who owns nearly ninety percent of IPA's stock), several additional managers, and many other IPA employees. A great deal of the most abhorrent conduct described by the EEOC was allegedly committed by IPA's upper-level management (although lower-level workers are by no means under-represented in the EEOC's allegations). For example, the EEOC alleges that IPA's managing director and several other senior directors regularly propositioned subordinate employees for sex, offering them job benefits and even money in exchange for sexual favors, sexually assaulted female employees, and used offensive and derogatory language toward the women in IPA's offices. Thus, according to the EEOC, female employees at IPA were objectified and mistreated from the top down, company wide.

The EEOC also alleges that IPA had full knowledge of the extent to which the sexual harassment was occurring in its offices. Not only was the sexual harassment pervasive, but, as noted, it was being committed by many of the employees who were in a position to do something about it. Moreover, many women complained about the behavior to which they were subjected, both to the director of the human resources department and to various managers. The complaints had no effect, for not only were they routinely ignored, but many of the women who complained were actually subjected to additional harassment by the managers to whom they complained. In addition, even when complaints were investigated, usually no action was taken, and so harassers were left unpunished and free to continue their behavior.

The EEOC filed this action on June 12, 2001. A great deal of the litigation since that time has taken place before the magistrate judge, to whom the case was referred for discovery supervision. This court has, however, dealt with several discrete motions, such as the EEOC's motion to bifurcate, which the court denied on September 2, 2005, because the EEOC had not provided the court with sufficient information regarding the manner in which this case should be tried. See EEOC v. Int'l Profit Assocs., Inc., No. 01 C 4427 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 2, 2005) (order denying motion to bifurcate). The case emerged from discovery in February of 2005, and, after spending a great deal of time litigating various motions for sanctions, IPA filed the motions for summary judgment that are currently before the court. It is these motions, as well as the EEOC's objections to the magistrate judge's order denying its motion to compel, upon which the court now rules.

II. ANALYSIS

Although the court has before it IPA's motions for summary judgment, the primary question before the court is not whether genuine issues of material fact exist. Rather, the parties' main dispute centers on the legal framework within which this case must be tried. As shall be seen, the resolution of this issue matters a great deal-in fact, the merits of IPA's motions hinge upon it. The parties have staked out their respective positions vigorously and have provided the court with briefing that is far too voluminous.*fn6 However, the questions that the court must answer are relatively few. They are: (1) whether IPA may seek summary judgment with respect to individual claimants in the EEOC's class when the EEOC has accused IPA of tolerating a pattern or practice of sexual harassment and the EEOC seeks class-wide relief as well as individual damages; and (2) whether the magistrate judge erred by denying the EEOC's motion to compel the deposition of Suzanne Edwards. These issues will be addressed in turn.

A. IPA's Motions for Summary Judgment are Denied Without Prejudice

As noted previously, the briefing submitted by the parties with respect to IPA's motions demonstrates that the parties do not share any common view of the governing law. Each party presumes a certain legal framework, and as a result they talk past one another rather than address the difficult questions this case presents. In fact, the applicable law is far from settled; this case sits at the crossroads of several distinct lines of cases, and presents legal issues that are both complicated and novel. Before the court can rule on IPA's motions-or, for that matter, do anything else of substance-it must first determine the legal framework that will govern this case. Unfortunately, the parties' briefs provide very little to assist the court in this task, and the court is unwilling to resolve key questions without meaningful input from the parties.

Before delving into the legal quagmire that this case presents, it is helpful to first outline some of the key areas of dispute between the parties. In its opening brief, IPA argues that certain individual claimants' allegations do not establish harassment that is severe or pervasive*fn7 , based on sex*fn8 , or sufficiently specific*fn9 to be actionable under Title VII.*fn10 IPA's arguments all boil down to a single proposition: although the EEOC has brought this suit on behalf of a class of claimants, when each individual claimant's allegations are viewed in isolation it appears that a number of the claimants ...


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