EEOC probe into company's absence policy limited to single factory

The seal of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is seen in their office in Manhattan, New York City
The seal of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is seen in their office in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., September 17, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • Agency can't probe other plants after naming Alabama factory in complaint
  • Dissenting judge says investigation clearly involved nationwide policies

May 10 (Reuters) - A divided U.S. appeals court on Wednesday said the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's probe into alleged disability discrimination by an auto parts maker that operates seven factories must be limited to a single Alabama plant where the claims arose.

The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2-1 ruling said the nationwide data on Eberspaecher North America Inc's enforcement of an absence policy sought by the EEOC in a 2020 subpoena was irrelevant to its investigation into bias charges involving the company's Northport, Alabama facility.

An employee at the Northport factory had filed a complaint with the commission in 2017 claiming he was unlawfully fired over disability-related absences. Two years later, an EEOC commissioner filed a broader charge against the company spurred by the worker's complaint that listed the Alabama factory as the company's address.

The 11th Circuit majority said that because the EEOC did not put Eberspaecher on notice that its investigation included other facilities, it was not entitled to nationwide data.

Eberspaecher, a German company with U.S. operations based in South Carolina, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. An EEOC spokesman declined to comment.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act bars employers from disciplining or firing workers who miss days because of a chronic medical condition. Eberspaecher has denied wrongdoing in court filings.

The commission routinely investigates whether companies have engaged in a "pattern or practice" of discrimination, typically stemming from individual workers' complaints. If the agency finds reasonable cause that discrimination occurred, it can file a lawsuit or give workers permission to sue on their own.

In Wednesday's case, Eberspaecher had refused to provide the commission with the nationwide information sought in the subpoena. The company claimed that producing that data would be burdensome and that the subpoena was overly broad because the charge was based on allegations by a single employee.

The EEOC sued Eberspaecher in Alabama federal court to enforce the subpoena, but a judge in 2021 sided with the company and the 11th Circuit on Wednesday affirmed.

"No one disputes that the EEOC could have amended this charge prior to issuing the administrative subpoena to put [Eberspaecher] on notice of a nationwide investigation — but the EEOC did not do so," Circuit Judge Elizabeth Branch wrote, joined by Circuit Judge Barbara Lagoa.

Both judges are appointees of Republican former President Donald Trump.

Circuit Judge Charles Wilson in dissent said the EEOC's use of the Northport facility as Eberspaecher's address was not enough to limit an investigation that clearly involved companywide policies.

"Listing the facility address merely provides contact information, nothing more," wrote Wilson, an appointee of Democratic former President Bill Clinton.

The case is Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Eberspaecher North America Inc, 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-13799.

For the EEOC: Philip Kovnat

For Eberspaecher: Robert Adair of Adair Law Firm

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at