U.S. EEOC v. MARITIME AUTOWASH, No. 15-1947

Decided: April 25, 2016

The Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the trial court’s decision declining to authorize the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s application for subpoena enforcement.

On July 27, 2013, Elmer Escalante—who lacked authorization to work in the United States—and several other Hispanic employees complained to Plaintiff, Maritime Autowash (“Maritime”), of unequal treatment and discrimination targeting Hispanics.  That same day, all of them were terminated.  Escalante then filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) for discrimination on the basis of national origin and retaliation as prohibited under Title VII.  In response to the charges, Maritime denied all of the allegations of discrimination, claiming that Escalante was terminated for failing to appear for a scheduled work shift.  The EEOC then served Maritime with a Request for Information (“RFI”) seeking personnel files, wage records, and other employment data related to Escalante, the other charging parties, and similarly situated employees.  Maritime refused to provide records for any Hispanic employee other than Escalante.  Due to Maritime’s incomplete RFI, the EEOC issued a subpoena, to which Maritime produced none of the subpoenaed documents.  The EEOC then filed an application for subpoena enforcement which the district court denied stating that a “plaintiff is entitled to [Title VII] remedies only upon a successful showing that the applicant was qualified for employment” and that being qualified meant being “authorized for employment in the United States at the time in question.” The EEOC appealed.  The only question the Court of Appeals seeks to answer is whether EEOC’s subpoena, designed to investigate Escalante’s Title VII charges, is enforceable.  They determined it was.

Maritime argued that someone lacking proper work authorization was never qualified for employment and therefore lacks any cause of action or remedy under Title VII.  However, the EEOC argued that, regardless of whether a cause of action or remedies ultimately arise from the investigation, those potential outcomes have no bearing on its subpoena power.  The Court agreed to an extent.  In addition to the fact that nothing under Title VII explicitly bars undocumented workers from filing complaints, the Court has not required a showing of a viable cause of action or remedy at the subpoena enforcement stage.  The EEOC’s authority to investigate is not negated simply because the party under investigation may have a valid defense to a later lawsuit.  Yet, the Court recognized that there is a limit to the EEOC’s subpoena power—specifically, the subpoena cannot be unduly burdensome.  The Court determined that the EEOC must be allowed to do their job, and thus they instructed that the subpoena be enforced.

Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded the district court decision.

In his concurrence, Judge Niemeyer questioned whether the EEOC’s application for subpoena enforcement exceeded its substantive jurisdiction.  He ultimately concluded that the subpoena should have been enforced because the record plausibly suggested that the employer had engaged in a practice or pattern of discrimination that adversely effected other employees who were authorized to work in the U.S.

Full Opinion

Aleia M. Hornsby

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