EEOC Can Enforce its Own Subpoenas After Issuance of Notice of Right-to-Sue and Resolution of Underlying Charges of Employment Discrimination in Private Lawsuit

On August 15, 2017, the 7th Circuit rejected a company's challenge to the legal authority of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") to continue an enforcement action after issuing a notice of right-to-sue letter and subsequent resolution of the underlying charges of discrimination in a private lawsuit.  Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Union Pacific Railroad Company, No. 15-3452 (7th Cir. 8/15/2017).  The EEOC petitioned the district court to enforce its subpoena for the defendant's employment records related to the charges.  The 7th Circuit stated that the U.S. Supreme Court and the 7th Circuit have recognized the EEOC's broad role in promoting the public interest by preventing employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended ("Title VII"), including its independent authority to investigate charges of discrimination, especially company-wide pattern and practice of discrimination cases.  Thus, the 7th Circuit agreed with the district court that neither the issuance of the right-to-sue letter nor the entry of judgment in a lawsuit filed by the charging parties bars the EEOC from continuing its own investigation.

The EEOC is authorized by Title VII to continue investigating an employer by seeking enforcement of its subpoena after issuing a notice of right-to-sue to the charging parties, and after the dismissal of the charging parties' subsequent civil lawsuit on the merits.  Title VII was enacted in 1964 (signed into law by President Johnson) and was amended in 1972 to provide the EEOC with the authority to sue employers as a means to implement the public interest and bring about more effective enforcement of private rights.  The amendment recognized that the EEOC's critical role in preventing employment discrimination extends beyond private charges filed by individuals.  There is nothing in Title VII that limits the EEOC's investigative authority to the actions of the charging party.  Withdrawal of a charge of discrimination by an employee does not strip the EEOC of its authority to pursue its own investigation into an employer's employment practices.  The amendments to Title VII, which grant broader investigative and enforcement authority to the EEOC, confirm that the EEOC's independent authority exceeds the allegations of an individual charge.  The EEOC has the authority to conduct its own investigation of a pattern and practice of employment discrimination for the benefit of other employees in addition to the charging employee.  The EEOC even adopted a regulation that expressly contemplates the continuation of an investigation after the issuance of a notice of right-to-sue letter to the charging party.  In light of the absence of any support in Title VII for the company's position on appeal, the EEOC's adoption of the regulation, and the U.S. Supreme Court's guidance, that the EEOC is the master of the charge for the greater public good, the 7th Circuit concluded that the issuance of a right-to-sue letter does not bar the EEOC from continuing its investigation of the employer.  Likewise, the dismissal of the charging parties' lawsuit does not terminate the EEOC's investigative authority or prevent it from continuing its investigation.  The 7th Circuit, therefore, affirmed the district court's order enforcing the EEOC's subpoena.