In its lawsuit, the EEOC charged – and the judge later held – that Cognis retaliated against a longtime employee at its Kankakee, Ill., facility in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Cognis had required that employee, as a condition of his continued employment, to sign a “last-chance agreement.” That agreement prohibited the employee from filing charges of discrimination with the EEOC, even for events that had yet to occur. When the employee informed Cognis that he did not want to be bound by the agreement out of concern about its effect on his civil rights, Cognis fired him.
The EEOC brought suit (EEOC v. Cognis Corp., 10-CV-2182, C.D. Ill.) in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois after first attempting to resolve the case through its conciliation process.
Chief U.S. District Judge Michael P. McCuskey held in May 2012 that the employee’s termination constituted unlawful retaliation in violation of Title VII. With that issue decided, the only question left for trial was the extent of the employee’s damages.
The EEOC’s lawsuit also alleged that Cognis retaliated against five additional employees by forcing those employees to make a similarly illegal choice. Those employees chose to sign a last chance agreement that stripped them of their right to file charges and seek relief for future discriminatory conduct – rather than be terminated. By settling the lawsuit, BASF has opted not to continue defending against those allegations.
Judge McCuskey entered a consent decree resolving the lawsuit on January 25, 2013. The decree provides monetary relief to the victims and requires BASF to report all employee retaliation complaints under Title VII at the Kankakee facility to the EEOC for the next two years. BASF must also train a specified group of its employees on prohibited retaliation under the federal employment nondiscrimination laws and adopt a new policy informing employees of their right to oppose unlawful discrimination without fear of retaliation. Furthermore, BASF agreed that it would not require the recipients of monetary relief to keep confidential the allegations and facts underlying the charge, to waive their rights to file a charge with any government agency, or to refrain from reapplying for work with the company.
“The EEOC has an inherent, institutional interest in maintaining open lines of communication with people who believe they may be victims of discrimination,” said John Hendrickson, the EEOC’s regional attorney in Chicago. “That is why employers who attempt to break that line of communication by dissuading employees from filing EEOC charges are breaking the law. Courts get that, and with this case, we hope more employers will as well.”
EEOC’s Chicago District Director John Rowe, added, “Cognis presented the victims in this case with a terrible, illegal choice: lose your job or lose your civil rights. Under the law, no worker has to make that kind of choice. Employers would be better served by working to ensure that their employees are free from discrimination, rather than threatening their workers with termination in an effort to make sure that employees don’t complain.”
The EEOC’s litigation team was led by Supervisory Trial Attorney Gregory M. Gochanour and Trial Attorneys Deborah Hamilton and Brad Fiorito of the Chicago District Office.
Cognis was acquired in December 2010 by BASF, a multinational chemical company. According to the most recent information available on the BASF website, BASF Corporation has approximately 16,000 employees in North America and in 2011 had sales of $20 billion.
EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal laws prohibiting discrimination. The EEOC’s 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.