The federal appeals court in Richmond has given the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission its stamp of approval when issuing broad subpoenas to investigate discrimination charges. In EEOC v. Randstad (4th Cir., No. 11-1759, Jul. 24, 2012), the EEOC petitioned the court to enforce an administrative subpoena that it issued during its investigation of a charging party’s discrimination charge under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act. The original charge was brought only under Title VII, and during the course of the investigation, the charge was amended to add the disability discrimination claim.
The EEOC’s subpoena sought information for three years after the charging party departed and for 12 locations where the charging party never sought work. The district court denied the EEOC judicial enforcement of the subpoena, holding that the new claims were based on a different theory of recovery and did not relate back to the original charge. Therefore, the court held it lacked jurisdiction to enforce a subpoena to investigate those new claims.
On appeal, however, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, found that the EEOC’s relation-back test allowed the agency to expand its investigation into alleged discrimination beyond the claims in the original charge. Despite the burden to the employer, the Court held, “[T]he amended charge of discrimination relates back to the filing date of the original charge and…the EEOC had authority under the ADA to investigate matters relevant to that charge.” The Court thus deferred to the EEOC to determine the appropriate scope of what information is “relevant to that charge.” It held that “an agency’s interpretation of its own regulations is controlling unless plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.” This decision essentially broadened the possibilities for the EEOC to expand the scope of virtually any investigation beyond the allegations in the charge if it decides to interpret its own regulations to do so.
This decision greatly expands the EEOC’s ability to seek information only tangentially related to the charge of discrimination. The Court has allowed the EEOC latitude to seek information that creates a huge burden on employers in its hunt for claims that may not have been raised in the charge. Employers should be extremely cautious when providing information to the EEOC to avoid allowing any openings that could expose them to unnecessary scrutiny. Additionally, this decision illustrates the evolution of the Fourth Circuit, from one of the most conservative courts, to one more hostile to employers. This underscores the changing dynamic in the Court and emphasizes the need for a careful analysis of any information provided to the EEOC or the Court.