Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that allows the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to continue investigating allegations of employment discrimination, and even to issue subpoenas to employers, after issuing a right-to-sue letter to the employee who filed the initial complaint. Click here to read the Ninth Circuit decision in Federal Express Corp. v. EEOC.
In order to file a lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employee must first file a complaint of discrimination with either the EEOC or an analogous state agency, a process known as "exhausting administrative remedies." Only after the EEOC issues a "right-to-sue letter" may the employee then file a lawsuit. It is not uncommon for an employee to file a complaint with the EEOC and withdraw it almost immediately, obtain the right-to-use letter and file a lawsuit, all before the EEOC has had a chance to investigate. In Federal Express, the employee did just that in order to join a pending class action lawsuit. The employer expected the EEOC to drop its investigation, but instead EEOC continued to investigate and issued a subpoena to the employer.
The Ninth Circuit enforced the subpoena, writing: "By continuing to investigate a charge of systemic discrimination even after the charging party has filed suit, the EEOC is pursuing its obligation to serve the public interest." The Ninth Circuit’s decision is in line with a decision from the Third Circuit, but contrary to decisions from the Fifth, Seventh and Tenth Circuits. The Supreme Court will often take a case like Federal Express to resolve such splits between the circuit courts, but declined to do so in this case. As a result, the EEOC’s investigatory powers will continue to vary depending on where a complaint is made.
Given the Supreme Court’s ruling in Federal Express, employers can no longer safely assume that the EEOC will drop its investigation once it issues a right-to-sue letter. The EEOC may choose to continue investigating charges of discrimination, especially in cases involving allegations of systemic or widespread violations of anti-discrimination law. Employers (at least those in the Ninth and Third Circuits) should be prepared to comply with EEOC investigations even after the right-to-sue letter has issued.