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Labor & Employment – EEOC Can Enforce Subpoena in Illegal Worker Case

U.S. EEOC v. Maritime Autowash Inc. (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-075-16, 20 pp.) (Wilkinson, J.) No. 15-1947, April 25, 2016; USDC at Baltimore, Md. (Russell, J.) 4th Cir.

Holding: In considering an undocumented alien’s Title VII claim against defendant carwash, a district court erred in refusing to enforce the EEOC’s subpoena seeking information related to the complaint; whether and to what extent Title VII covers undocumented aliens is a “novel and complex problem especially ill-suited to a premature and absolute pronouncement,” the 4th Circuit says.

Complainant claims that, following an inspection of the employer’s work records by the Department of Homeland Security in May 2013, the carwash owner and its general manager met with all the Hispanic employees. They allegedly offered those without proper work authorization $150 each, styled as a one-time bonus, to help them acquire new documentation with new names. Complainant obtained a different social security number corresponding to his name. Defendant then rehired him and the other Hispanic employees with their new papers.

On July 23, 2013, complainant and other Hispanic employees complained to defendant of unequal treatment and discrimination targeting Hispanics. All of them were terminated the day they complained. Complainant filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Feb. 6, 2014, for discrimination on the basis of national origin and retaliation under Title VII. The charge alleged longer working hours, shorter breaks, lack of proper equipment, additional duties and lower wages. Ten other terminated Hispanics lodged similar complaints with the EEOC. Defendant denied all allegations of discrimination and stated complainant had been terminated for failing to appear for a scheduled work shift.

The EEOC served employer with a request for information (RFI) on May 27, 2014, seeking personnel files, wage records and other employment data related to claimant and the other charging parties. The EEOC issued a subpoena on June 10, 2014, and twice filed for enforcement of the subpoena. The district court held that plaintiff’s lack of work authorization precluded any “standing or right to seek the remedies under Title VII” and left “no viable basis” for his EEOC complaint.

Narrow Issue

The only question we must now consider is whether the EEOC’s subpoena, designed to investigate plaintiff’s Title VII charges, is enforceable. We hold that it is. Courts may uphold the agency’s subpoena authority without the need to pass on its view of Title VII’s coverage of undocumented workers.

Whether under the name of Elmer Escalante or Angel Erazo, the charging party in this case was employed at defendant’s carwash, and his charge of discrimination rests squarely on one of the protected grounds. This is not a case where the agency went rogue or jumped the tracks and sought to investigate something unrelated to its statutory charge. This court has not required the showing of a viable cause of action or remedy at the subpoena enforcement stage.

Judgment reversed and case remanded with instructions to enforce the EEOC subpoena.


Niemeyer, J.: I share Judge Wilkinson’s sensible view that a full-blown merits review is premature at the subpoena-enforcement stage. But we have previously explained that an agency must show that the exercise of its jurisdiction is supported by reasonable cause when the person to whom the subpoena is directed raises a substantial question that the court’s process will be abused by enforcement. Here, the employer has raised such a question.

I concur in the judgment to enforce the subpoena in this case because the record plausibly suggests the employer has engaged in a practice or pattern of discrimination that adversely affects other employees who are authorized to work in the U.S.

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