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Employer to pay $37,500 for suing employee who filed equal pay claim

By Lisa Milam-Perez, J.D.

A project manager for a bearing manufacturer will receive $37,500 in damages and will no longer be forced to defend herself against a malicious prosecution lawsuit after a federal court in Missouri entered an order enforcing a consent decree that the EEOC negotiated with her former employer. The employer conceded that it violated the Equal Pay Act when it retaliated against the employee for filing a complaint with the EEOC alleging violations of the Equal Pay Act (EEOC v. Hobson Bearing International, Inc., August 25, 2016, Hays, S.).

In 2015, the employee filed an EEOC charge contending that the employer violated the EPA by paying female employees less than their male counterparts for performing equal work. After the EEOC closed its investigation, the employer filed a malicious prosecution action against the (former) employee in state court, suing for economic and punitive damages. It actively litigated its case for more than four months, even after the EEOC notified the company that it was investigating the lawsuit as unlawful retaliation. The company finally moved to dismiss its suit without prejudice once the EEOC filed the instant action.

Although neither the district court or the Eighth Circuit has addressed whether employers are barred from filing suit against employees that they believe have brought false charges of discrimination, other courts, both state and federal, “have recognized the statutory bar against employers suing employees who file a charge of discrimination and the adverse policy implication of a contrary holding.” Noting in its verdict that an absolute privilege attaches to the filing of charges with the EEOC, the court awarded $37,500 in damages to the employee. It also ordered the employer to dismiss its suit against her, and to refrain from filing any other lawsuit or pursuing counterclaims against her based on her underlying allegations in the charge she filed with the agency.

“Employees need to know that EEOC will swiftly investigate and enforce the robust federal laws that provide strong protections for those … who raise claims about discrimination and are retaliated against,” said James R. Neely, Jr., the EEOC’s St. Louis District Director, in an agency press release announcing that the court had entered a consent decree in the case. “Hobson Bearing’s action of bringing a lawsuit against [the employee] was an egregious attempt to undermine her rights.”