The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal agency charged with enforcing federal laws against discrimination in the workplace. If an employee believes they have been discriminated against on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability, or genetic information, or if they believe they have been retaliated against for reporting, participating in, and/or opposing a discriminatory practice, they may file a complaint with the EEOC. The EEOC then conducts an investigation into the validity of the discrimination allegations and, if necessary, files suit against the company on behalf of the employee.
In a recent case, however, a federal district court decided that the EEOC had misused its authority and abused its power in recent investigative efforts. In 2010, a former employee of HomeNurse, Inc. (HNI) filed an EEOC claim against the company, alleging that HNI had unlawfully retaliated against her and that the company discriminated against individuals over the age of 40, African-Americans, and persons with disabilities and preexisting genetic conditions. However, the woman who brought the claim was not over 40, Caucasian, and had no disabilities or preexisting genetic conditions. She also named no specific employee at the company had discriminated against in these ways. Additionally, HNI defended firing the woman because she had exposed confidential patient information on the internet.
Regardless of the arbitrary nature of the employee’s claims, the EEOC showed up at HNI unannounced and began rifling through confidential files related to both personnel and patients. Furthermore, the EEOC issued several subpoenas requesting tens of thousands of pages of information regarding employees and applicants, including requesting access to documents officials already had in their possession. HNI tried to negotiate with the EEOC to provide the information in a more efficient and less expensive way, however the agency would not respond to HNI.
The Court’s Decision
The court stated that in order to file a legitimate discrimination claim, it must be in one of the following three categories:
-Claims brought by an aggrieved person;
-Claims brought by someone on behalf of an aggrieved person;
-Claims brought by a member of the EEOC on behalf of an aggrieved person.
In this case, the claim identified no aggrieved person, and therefore the EEOC abused its authority by initiating an investigation in the first place. Furthermore, the multiple and duplicative subpoenas for thousands of pages of information were overly burdensome and a further abuse of power.
The EEOC is an important entity to protect individual employees from many types of workplace discrimination. However, though the EEOC is generally viewed as the “good guys,” agency officials can make mistakes and abuse their power. Employers should not be subjected to unnecessary investigations when claims are not legitimate. The employment attorneys at HKM can help employers who are facing unjust or abusive claims or investigations.