Employers who feel the EEOC may have a tendency to overstep its authority were just dealt a blow.
A U.S. district court just ruled the EEOC can, generally, conduct on-site investigations of harassment and discrimination claims at your facility — and it doesn’t need your permission or a warrant to do so.
An important case
The ruling is a double-whammy for employers: It could embolden the EEOC’s enforcement and investigatory efforts, while at the same time dissuade employers from challenging the agency’s authority in the future.
It involved Nucor Steel Gallatin (“Gallatin”), a steel manufacturing facility in Kentucky.
After it rescinded a job offer to an applicant after he failed a post-offer, pre-employment medical exam, the applicant filed a disability discrimination charge with the EEOC.
The EEOC then decided to investigate, and it issued Gallatin a Request for Information. Gallatin complied with the request, sending the agency a list of the individuals involved in the applicant’s recruiting and interview process.
Then, the EEOC investigator said the next step in the process was to perform an on-site visit to conduct interviews with individuals believed to have information relevant to the claims.
To this, Gallatin replied:
“we simply do not feel that coming onsite is necessary or relevant to your investigation.”
Instead, the company offered:
“to provide the individuals requested for interviews at the EEOC office or an ‘offsite’ location.”
The EEOC then responded by issuing a subpoena requiring Gallatin to permit on-site access to conduct interviews, examine the facility and obtain/request any additional info pertaining to the position to which the applicant applied.
The song and dance continued with:
- Gallatin filing a petition to revoke and/or modify the subpoena
- the EEOC denying Gallatin’s petition, and
- Gallatin informing the agency that it wouldn’t consent to an on-site visit.
Eventually, the EEOC petitioned the district court to order Gallatin to show why it shouldn’t be compelled to comply with the subpoena.
The employer’s argument
Five reasons why Gallatin felt it didn’t have to comply with the subpoena:
- It provided the EEOC with more than enough info concerning the allegations. But the court shot this argument down by agreeing with the EEOC’s position that the agency couldn’t merely accept employer declarations as true without seeing things for itself.
- An on-site investigation would be “irrelevant.” But the court disagreed, saying an on-site investigation would determine the requirements of the job.
- The EEOC’s subpoena was overbroad because it didn’t specifically state what info the EEOC was seeking. This was actually a small win for Gallatin, as the court found the subpoena was — at least in part — overbroad. It said the EEOC’s request to “examine the facility,” without stating that it would stick to the areas of the facility that specifically related to the job in question, was overbroad. As a result, the court said the EEOC investigator had to focus on the areas directly relevant to the position.
- The time necessary for the EEOC to gain a reliable understanding of the essential functions of the position would be unreasonably disruptive to business. But the court rejected this argument, saying Gallatin failed to explain how the presence of an investigator would be burdensome.
- Permitting the EEOC to enter the facility would create safety issues. But the court disagreed, saying the EEOC was well-equipped to take reasonable precautions before inspecting facilities like Gallatin’s.
Bottom line: The court ordered Gallatin to permit an EEOC investigator to perform an on-site inspection of Gallatin’s facility.
There was a small silver lining to the ruling for employers, however: The EEOC wasn’t given carte blanche to do whatever it wanted while on-site and/or go wherever it wanted — thus limiting Gallatin’s exposure, at least a little.
As part of the court’s order, it ruled the inspector had to:
“… LIMIT his or her inspection to evidence directly related to the … position and its associated responsibilities. The investigator may not generally or indiscriminately search the facility for evidence relevant to Bennett’s claims, and must only inspect those areas that he or she reasonably believes will provide evidence relevant to the position.”