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Undocumented Workers May Seek Relief Under Title VII

Earlier this week, a Maryland federal court issued an opinion permitting the EEOC to proceed in a case of discrimination against several Hispanic former employees of an Edgewater carwash.  United States EEOC v. Phase 2 Invs. Inc., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 65719 (D. Md. Apr. 17, 2018).  The EEOC alleges that the carwash discriminated against several Hispanic former workers by “relegating” them to lower positions, denying them overtime and tips, and requiring them cleaning the machinery, power wash the property, landscape, and work at the managers’ homes without additional compensation.  The EEOC also alleges that the workers were made to eat outside, not given unfiltered water, not permitted to take their full breaks, and verbally harassed.

The case is recognizable from its previous proceedings.  In 2016, the Fourth Circuit held that the EEOC in this case was not obligated to demonstrate a valid Title VII cause of action for the district court to enforce the EEOC’s subpoena seeking information related to the underlying charge.  U.S. EEOC v. Mar. Autowash, Inc., 820 F.3d 662 (4th Cir. 2016).

The most recent opinion out of the district court analyzed several issues, including the EEOC’s ability to proceed in a case of unlawful discrimination of undocumented workers.  To this end, the defendants argued that the Hispanic workers could not seek relief under Title VII because their undocumented status renders them unqualified to work in the U.S.

The court rejected this argument for several reasons.  First, it found that Title VII does limit relief available to a class of individuals by their citizenship or immigration status.  Second, after acknowledging that the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) does make it illegal to employ aliens who are not authorized to work in the U.S., the court ultimately found that IRCA does not impact Title VII or other employment discrimination statutes.  Moreover, the court noted several Supreme Court opinions indicating that IRCA does not prevent employees from being covered under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Finally, the court recognized that the argument was grounded the Fourth Circuit precedent that a foreign national who is unauthorized to work in the United States cannot demonstrate that he is “qualified for a position” under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting method of establishing Title VII discrimination.  Interestingly, the Fourth Circuit declined to answer the question of an undocumented alien’s ability to seek relief under Title VII when it heard the case on the subpoena issue in 2016.  Nonetheless, the court here distinguished the Fourth Circuit’s precedent.  It found that the claim here – which was for a hostile work environment – did not require the aggrieved employees to demonstrate that they were qualified for the work that they did.

In sum, the court held that discrimination against an undocumented alien is an unlawful employment practice in violation of Title VII.  An alternative holding, the court warned, could shield employers who hire and discriminate against undocumented aliens from Title VII scrutiny.  Such a holding could also incentivize employers to turn a blind eye when potential employees cannot provide proper documentation of their authorization to work.  In this regard, the court found, its holding strengthens the goal of IRCA.

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