Wednesday, November 25, 2009

EEOC wins battle over UPS discrimination records

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission wanted records from United Parcel Service to determine whether UPS was violating the religious rights of employees. UPS said no. The district court said no. The Court of Appeals says yes. EEOC gets the records.

The case is EEOC v. United Parcel Service, decided on November 19. EEOC is charged with investigating employment discrimination claims. Two UPS employees (one in Buffalo, the other in Texas) claimed the company would not allow them to wear beards as required by their religious observances, despite the company's policy to grant exemptions from the no-beards policy.

This is what the EEOC's subpoena demanded from UPS:

(1) all documents related to the Appearance Guidelines and a list of all jobs which are subject to the Guidelines; (2) identifying information for all job applicants denied employment because of their refusal to adhere to the Appearance Guidelines since January 1, 2004; (3) identifying information for all employees who requested a religious accommodation to the Appearance Guidelines and the outcomes of those requests since January 1, 2004; and (4) identifying information for all employees who were terminated for reasons relating to the Appearance Guidelines since January 1, 2004.

The district court found that the subpoena was overly broad and sought national information not relevant to the individual charges. The Court of Appeals (Newman, Katzmann and Trager, D.J.) reverses.

Under Second Circuit case law, trial courts have a limited role in enforcing administrative subpoenas like this. "To obtain enforcement of an administrative subpoena, '[a]n agency must show only [1] that the investigation will be conducted pursuant to a legitimate purpose, [2] that the inquiry may be relevant to the purpose, [3] that the information sought is not already within [the agency’s] possession, and [4] that the administrative steps required ... have been followed.'" The Court adds, "A subpoena that satisfies these criteria will be enforced unless the party opposing enforcement demonstrates that the subpoena is unreasonable or that compliance would be 'unnecessarily burdensome.'” Also, the company cannot reject the subpoena on the ground that it believes the discrimination claims are meritless.

The information requested here is relevant to EEOC's investigation, and the district court applied too restrictive a legal standard in sustaining UPS's objection. Not only did the company's physical appearance policy apply to UPS offices around the country, but company policy promises to evenly apply the religious exemption. Yet, the two complainants here were not given the chance to secure an exemption, and one of them was told there was no exemption policy. He also alleged in his EEOC complaint that UPS had a pattern and practice of failing to accommodate employees who wanted the religious exemption. Without too many citations from Supreme Court and Second Circuit authority, the Court of Appeals upholds the subpoena and in effect awards EEOC the requested documents.

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