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The Chicago district office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — which has won pioneering victories in sexual harassment class actions — was recently dealt a setback by a federal judge. In EEOC v. Custom Cos. Inc., No. 02C3768, Judge Harry D. Leineweber of the Northern District of Illinois called into question the legal reasoning behind a 2001 decision that magnified the EEOC’s leverage against soap maker Dial Corp. in a sexual harassment class action, and that contributed to a $10 million settlement agreed to by Dial last year. The 2001 ruling was EEOC v. Dial Corp., 156 F. Supp. 2d 926. In his April 7 pretrial ruling, Leineweber said that Custom Cos. Inc., a Northlake, Ill., shipping firm, could not be held liable for charges raised by women who had left the company before March 20, 1998, despite the fact that the EEOC may draw upon the women’s testimony to establish that the company had engaged in a long-standing pattern or practice of sexual harassment. 300 DAYS For the most part, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employers from liability for violations that are deemed “stale.” Leineweber arrived at the cutoff date of March 20, 1998, by counting back 300 days from the first complaint the EEOC received about Custom, lodged by former sales representative Catherine Copello in 1999, according to his opinion. In the Dial case, Judge Warren K. Urbom (visiting from the District of Nebraska) said that the EEOC could seek damages on behalf of employees who had left Dial prior to the 300-day period, as long as they were the victims of a continuous pattern or practice of sexual harassment that also affected other employees during the 300-day period. Urbom’s reasoning was flawed, Leineweber wrote, because:

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