Are We Done Yet ?… The Investigation That Never Ends.

The Issue

Does the EEOC have investigative authority to subpoena employers for information after the EEOC has issued an employee a right-to-sue letter? What about after a court has already entered a judgment on the merits in favor of the employer? The Seventh Circuit says yes. 

The EEOC… What Now?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is an agency that was created by Congress under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The purpose of the agency is to serve the public interest by enforcing the provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and other non-discriminatory legislation in the workplace context. Under the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, the EEOC’s power was magnified to include enforcement through the courts, longer periods of time for administration, and conciliation of charges. Further, Section 706 of this Act lays out the procedures and timing guidelines for claims filed with the agency.

First, an aggrieved employee may file a charge with the EEOC. Thereafter, the agency investigates the claim against the employer. This investigation could include a subpoena for relevant information and ultimately lead to a lawsuit filed by the agency itself. The charging employee has the option to allow the charge to be resolved by the EEOC or to obtain a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, which is necessary to file a lawsuit in federal court (excluding charges under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act).

The Split

The Seventh Circuit joins the Ninth Circuit in holding that the EEOC has the administrative authority to investigate possible discrimination independent of the employee’s cause of action. In EEOC v. Union Pac. R.R (2017), the Seventh Circuit upheld the EEOC’s ability to continue investigating an employer after issuing a right-to-sue notice to an employee and after the dismissal of the employees’ subsequent civil lawsuit on the merits. The court reasoned that ruling otherwise would erroneously undermine the EEOC’s authority as “merely derivative” of the employee’s right to sue, which would be contrary to the holding of the Supreme Court in EEOC v. Waffle House (2002).

In EEOC v. Fed. Express Corp. (2008), the Ninth Circuit held that the issuance of a right-to-sue letter does not strip the EEOC of authority to continue to process the charge, including an independent investigation of allegations of discrimination on a company-wide basis. They reasoned that “the EEOC’s right of action is independent of the employee’s private action rights” and further that “it is the [EEOC]’s province–not that of the court–to determine whether public resources should be committed” to the continuing investigation of a charge.

However, in EEOC v. Hearst (1997), the Fifth Circuit held that the EEOC “may not continue an administrative investigation based upon an individual’s charge once the charging party has been issued a right to sue letter and has initiated litigation based upon that charge.” They reasoned the time for investigation passes after litigation has commenced.

Looking Forward

The Seventh Circuit’s opinion largely aligned with the US Supreme Court’s holding in EEOC v. Waffle House (2002).  The Supreme Court reasoned that “[t]he statute clearly makes the EEOC the master of its case and confers on the agency the authority to evaluate the strength of the public interest at stake.”

Following the Seventh Circuit’s decision, the EEOC’s investigative authority could be challenged in other circuits and present an opportunity for the Supreme Court to rule on this issue. In particular, the issue of whether a valid, final judgment on the merits presents enough discovered information on the employer’s practices would be a different issue from that of Waffle House. The Supreme Court of the United States may need to more definitively rule on this issue for uniformity of the law across circuits.