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EEOC can subpoena employer of undocumented worker

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The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has the authority to subpoena an employer in a discrimination complaint filed by an undocumented worker, despite the unanswered question of whether the agency ultimately has jurisdiction in the case, says an appeals court in reversing a lower court ruling.

Elmer Escalante, an undocumented worker who was hired as a vacuumer at an Edgewater, Maryland carwash operated by Millersville, Maryland-based Maritime Autowash Inc. in May, 2012, filed a complaint against his employer with the EEOC in February 2014, charging discrimination on the basis of national origin and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in connection with its treatment of Hispanics, according to Monday’s ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, in U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Maritime Autowash Inc.

The EEOC issued a subpoena in the case, then sought the approval of the U.S. District Court in Baltimore to enforce it when Maritime did not respond. The District Court held that because Mr. Escalante was an undocumented worker, he did not have standing to sue Maritime, and “thus left no viable basis for his EEOC complaint,” said the ruling.

The trial court erred in refusing to authorize this “very preliminary step,” said a unanimous three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit.

“Courts may uphold the agency’s subpoena authority without the need to pass on its view of Title VII’s coverage of undocumented workers,” said the ruling.

The EEOC’s investigation of Mr. Escalante’s charges is “at least plausibly and arguably related to the authority that Congress conferred upon the commission,” said the ruling. “This is not a case where the agency went rogue or jumped the tracks and sought to investigate something unrelated to its statutory charge.”

“The particular issue that Maritime presses — 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,” said the court, in remanding the case with instructions that the EEOC’s subpoena be enforced.