Seyfarth Synopsis: This Fourth Circuit ruling opens the door for the EEOC to investigate employers as a result of EEOC charges brought by unauthorized employees, even though an illegal alien worker may not be able to seek certain legal remedies.

Undocumented workers and immigration reform are part of the political debate for the upcoming Presidential election.

The Fourth Circuit’s recent validation of an EEOC enforcement subpoena regarding the government’s investigation of an employer’s alleged discrimination against an illegal alien is certainly an eye-opener for employers. It manifests that the Commission will vigorously investigate and litigate claims involving alleged workplace discrimination against unauthorized workers.

In EEOC v. Maritime Autowash, Inc., No. 15-1947 (4th Cir. Apr. 25, 2016), the Fourth Circuit reversed a ruling from the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland that had denied an application for subpoena enforcement following an illegal alien’s EEOC charge brought against his employer. This ruling opens the door for the EEOC to investigate employers as a result of EEOC charges brought by illegal alien employees, even though the charging parties may not even be able to seek certain legal remedies.

Case Background

In May 2012, Maritime Autowash, Inc. (“Maritime”) hired Elmer Escalante as a vacuumer at its carwash in Edgewater, Maryland. At the time, Escalante lacked authorization to work in the United States. On July 27, 2013, Escalante and other Hispanic employees complained to Maritime of unequal treatment and discrimination targeting Hispanics. All of them were terminated the day they raised the complaint. Escalante then filed charges with the EEOC on February 6, 2014 for discrimination on the basis of national origin and retaliation as prohibited under Title VII. The complaint detailed the unequal employment conditions facing Hispanic employees at Maritime, including longer working hours, shorter breaks, lack of proper equipment, additional duties, and lower wages. Ten other terminated Hispanic employees lodged similar complaints with the EEOC. The Commission served Maritime with a notice of the charges on February 25, 2014. Id. at 3-4.

In responding to the charges, Maritime denied all allegations of discrimination and stated that Escalante had been terminated for failing to appear for a scheduled work shift. The EEOC served Maritime with a Request for Information (“RFI”) on May 27, 2014 seeking personnel files, wage records, and other employment data related to Escalante, the other charging parties, and similarly-situated employees dating from January 1, 2012 to the time of the request. Maritime refused to provide records for any Hispanic employee other than Escalante, and further objected that certain of the agency’s requests were unduly burdensome, overly broad, and/or irrelevant. Faced with Maritime’s incomplete response to its RFI, the EEOC issued a subpoena on June 10, 2014, which focused only on Escalante’s charges. Maritime produced none of the subpoenaed documents. Id. at 4-5.

The EEOC filed an application to the District Court seeking to enforce the subpoena, which was denied. Thereafter, the EEOC appealed to the Fourth Circuit, which reversed and remanded the District Court’s denial of the application to enforce the subpoena.

The Decision

The Fourth Circuit noted that it cannot yet know whether the agency’s investigation will uncover misconduct by the employer or ever ripen into a lawsuit, nor could it assess what causes of action or remedies might lie down the road. Id. at 2. As such, the only issue it considered was whether the EEOC’s subpoena, designed to investigate Escalante’s Title VII charges, was enforceable. Id. at 6. The Fourth Circuit noted that central to the EEOC’s authority to enforce Title VII’s provisions against employment discrimination “is the power to investigate charges brought by employees, including the right to access any evidence . . . that relates to unlawful employment practices covered by [the statute] … as well as the authority to issue administrative subpoenas and to request judicial enforcement of those subpoenas.” Id. at 6-7 (internal quotation marks omitted). Further, “The [judicial review] process is not one for a determination of the underlying claim on its merits … courts should look only to the jurisdiction of the agency to conduct such an investigation.” Id. at 7 (quoting EEOC v. Am. & Efird Mills, Inc., 964 F.2d 300, 303 (4th Cir. 1992)).

Noting that the jurisdictional question was central to the dispute here, the Fourth Circuit reasoned that the plain language of Title VII provides that jurisdiction is attained if there is a “plausible” or “arguable” basis for the EEOC’s subpoena. Id. at 8-9. Also at issue was Title VII’s definition of employee, which does not specifically bar undocumented workers from filing complaints. Id. at 9. Since the charging party was employed at Maritime’s car wash, his charge of discrimination rested squarely on one of the protected grounds. Accordingly, the Court held that “[t]he EEOC’s investigation of Escalante’s charges was therefore at least plausibly and arguably related to the authority that Congress conferred upon the Commission. Since Maritime challenged only the agency’s subpoena authority, the district court should have stopped at that point and enforced the subpoena accordingly.” Id. at 9.

Maritime argued that a reviewing court must ascertain a valid charge of discrimination, which must incorporate a viable cause of action or remedy as a “jurisdictional prerequisite” to enforcing the agency’s subpoena. Id. The Fourth Circuit rejected this argument, opining that courts should not venture prematurely into the merits of employment actions that have not been brought. Id. at 11. Considering the pragmatic effect of the employer’s argument, the Fourth Circuit explained “Maritime’s challenge to the EEOC’s subpoena envisions a world where an employer could impose all manner of harsh working conditions upon undocumented aliens, and no questions could be asked, no charges filed, and no agency investigation even so much as begun. The employer is asking the court for carte blanche to both hire illegal immigrants and then unlawfully discriminate against those it unlawfully hired.” Id. at 14. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the District Court’s judgement, holding that when the EEOC is investigating charges plausibly within its delegated powers, the courts should not obstruct. Id. at 15.

Implications For Employers

This ruling absolutely belongs on the radar of any employer who may have undocumented workers in its labor force. Even if those workers are unable to seek certain legal remedies, should they bring EEOC charges, the employer will likely have to cooperate with any governmental investigation. Accordingly, employers should exercise caution in this context, as EEOC investigations can penetrate their walls regardless of the legal status of those employees.