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Sixth Circuit expands reach of EEOC investigation

In a recent opinion, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals gave a greenlight to the EEOC’s own long-held beliefs about the breadth of its subpoena powers.  In EEOC v. UPS, 6th Cir. No. 16-2132, ____ F.3d ____, 2010 WL 2486017 (June 9, 2017), the EEOC was investigating the charge of a single individual on an allegation of ADA discrimination.  The Claimant alleged his privacy rights were violated under the ADA by the fact that his physical limitations and accompanying medical documentation about his medical condition were accessible to all UPS managers via a company-wide intranet.

To investigate the charge, the EEOC served UPS with a subpoena for, among other things, a printout, or copy of its entire intranet database that housed the information for the prior 3 years.   UPS objected to the subpoena on the basis that the database contained information about individuals who were unrelated to the current Claimant, were not similarly situated with the current Claimant, who lived in different areas of the country, and because the database would include individuals for whom the EEOC would have no jurisdiction to investigate – its Canadian employees.

Undeterred, the EEOC amended its charge to include a class action claim, alleging the violations stated by the Claimant were also committed against other individuals who may seek redress.  The EEOC again requested the entire database for the three-year period.  UPS again refused.

The EEOC then filed in Federal District Court in Michigan to enforce its subpoena.  The District Court granted the EEOC’s request, and ordered UPS to turn over the information sought.  UPS appealed to the Sixth Circuit, which also ordered UPS to turn over the information.

In its opinion, the Sixth Circuit reasoned the EEOC would have been entitled to the database even if the EEOC had not added a class action claim because the EEOC is entitled to investigate charges beyond the complainant and similarly situated individuals, to include pattern and practice violations.  The Court further held that this specific database was discoverable because it is the location where the Claimant and others’ confidential medical information would have been improperly stored.

Even before the court’s ruling in this case, the EEOC has pushed for broad discovery in its investigations.  This ruling is unlikely to change how the EEOC investigates claims, but it will make it harder for employers to refuse to turn over information and documentation if it is even tenuously relevant to the charge.

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