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Appeals court: EEOC can keep investigating Union Pacific even after specific discrimination case tossed

By Jonathan Bilyk | Aug 18, 2017

Chicago federal courthouse flamingo from rear

Federal employment discrimination regulators are not limited to pursuing their own discrimination investigations against employers, even after a case under which the agency launched an investigation is dismissed, a federal appeals court has ruled.

On Aug. 15, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago said the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is allowed under federal civil rights laws and under legal precedent to continue to press its investigation of potential claims of racial discrimination against Union Pacific.

In upholding the decision of a lower court, the circuit judges said the railroad must respond to continuing subpoenas for documents and other information from the EEOC, even though a federal judge had dismissed racial discrimination claims brought by two African American former railroad workers, which had served as the impetus behind the start of the EEOC’s investigation.

“… The disposition of a civil action brought by charging individuals does not necessarily prevent the EEOC from continuing that investigation,” the circuit judges wrote. “To hold otherwise would not only undercut the EEOC’s role as the master of its case under Title VII, it would render the EEOC’s authority as ‘merely derivative’ of that of the charging individual…

“The policy implications of such a ruling are also disturbing, since it would give unhealthy leverage to an individual litigant and an undue incentive to employers to purchase a stipulated dismissal with prejudice in order to prevent the EEOC from pursuing a larger public interest where the circumstances warrant.”

The case centers on the firing of two railroad workers, identified in court documents as Frank Burks and Cornelius Jones, who had worked for UP as “’Signal Helpers,’ an entry-level job that involves laying wires and cables, digging trenches, changing signal lines, and climbing poles.”

The two men had sought to take a test to be considered for promotion to the position of “Assistant Signal Person.” UP, however, never allowed them to enter that candidate pool, and in October 2011, eliminated the Signal Helper position altogether, and terminating Jones and Burks.

They then complained of discrimination to the EEOC, which issued a “right-to-sue” letter and launched an investigation of UP’s testing process.

Jones and Burks filed suit against UP in 2012, but their case was dismissed in 2014.

UP then refused to continue cooperating with the EEOC’s investigation, and EEOC sued in Milwaukee federal court. UP argued  the EEOC had no authority to continue subpoenaing information from them, since the underlying case on which the investigation was based had been dismissed.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman refused, however, saying the EEOC’s authority to investigate didn’t stop when the two ex-workers’ cases were terminated.

UP then appealed, but the Seventh Circuit judges said Judge Adelman was correct in finding Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights law gave the EEOC the right and authority to continue the investigation.

The EEOC’s authority to investigate is also not limited to “the allegations in the underlying charges,” the judge’s said, contrary to UP’s assertions.

“… The information sought in the subpoena might well ‘cast light on the allegations against the employer,’ thus satisfying the relevance requirement, or at least the district court did not abuse its discretion in so finding,” the judges wrote.

The decision was authored by U.S. District Judge William Conley, of the Western District of Wisconsin, who sat on the three-judge panel presiding in the case. Seventh Circuit Judges Ilana D. Rover and Ann C. Williams concurred in the opinion.

Union Pacific was represented by the firm of Quarles & Brady LLP, of Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

Quarles and Brady LLPUnion Pacific HQU.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh CircuitU.S. District Court for the Eastern District of WisconsinU.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission