A federal court has ruled that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has the right to conduct on-site inspections of businesses without a warrant or consent from the owner.
This new development could put employers in the crosshairs of the EEOC anytime the agency deems a complaint worthy enough to visit a company’s premises over an allegation of discrimination. And legal experts predict that the agency will cite this case whenever an employer tries to refuse an EEOC request for an on-site inspection.
“This decision arms the EEOC with precedent that it may conduct on-site investigations regardless of whether an employer consents, something employers should consider when contemplating whether to deny the EEOC access to its business during an investigation,” the law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP wrote in a blog.
In the case in question, a man sued Nucor Steel Gallatin Inc. for discrimination, alleging that the company rescinded a job offer after it had learned of his disability history. He later filed a complaint with the EEOC, which subsequently informed the company that it would conduct an on-site visit to interview other personnel who were involved in the hiring process.
Gallatin refused, telling the EEOC “We simply do not feel that coming on-site is necessary or relevant to your investigation.” After that, the commission issued a subpoena to visit the premises and in turn Gallatin said it could not enter the worksite without a court warrant.
At that point, the EEOC asked the U.S. District Court in Frankfort, Kentucky, to intervene in the case. In its decision rendered on April 28, 2016, but published in July, the court ordered Gallatin to let the investigator perform the inspection, but ruled that the investigator limit the inspection to evidence directly related to the Hot Rolling Department Shift Manager position and its associated responsibilities.
It also said that requiring a warrant would essentially duplicate the same procedures for enforcing a subpoena.
The court noted that the EEOC regulations contained comprehensive safeguards for a company that refuses a subpoena. It also stated that the EEOC cannot enforce a subpoena without obtaining approval from a federal district court and that the court will approve the subpoena after determining if the inspection is in the agency’s “authority, procedurally sound, relevant to the specific charges filed, and not unduly burdensome.”
Seyfarth Shaw wrote in its blog that “if the EEOC ever did have any hesitance about conducting an on-site investigation without an employer’s consent, this ruling likely alleviates any such concern.”
The law firm recommends that employers tread carefully if they are considering challenging an EEOC subpoena.