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Federal Appellate Court Considers Whether Undocumented Immigrant Can Make Claim Under Antidiscrimination Law

EEOC SealThe extent of protection offered to undocumented immigrants by various state and federal laws is a matter of ongoing debate, both in the court system and among politicians. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued a ruling allowing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to investigate a discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on behalf of an undocumented immigrant. EEOC v. Maritime Autowash, Inc., No. 15-1947, slip op. (4th Cir., Apr. 25, 2016). The very limited question before the court was whether the EEOC could subpoena the employer’s records. Despite precedent stating that undocumented immigrants lack standing under Title VII, the court found that the employer should not be allowed “to both hire illegal immigrants and then unlawfully discriminate against those it unlawfully hired.” Id. at 14.

Federal immigration law prohibits employers from recruiting or hiring “aliens” who are not authorized to work in the U.S., or from continuing to employ such a person after learning of their lack of work authorization. 8 U.S.C. §§ 1324a(a)(1) – (2). The law also includes provisions prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of national origin or citizenship. The protections relating to citizenship, however, do not extend to people who lack lawful immigration status. 8 U.S.C. § 1324b(a)(3). The question is therefore whether undocumented immigrants can make a claim under Title VII, which protects employees from discrimination based on their “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a).

Prior to the Maritime decision, Fourth Circuit precedent held that individuals without lawful immigration status lacked standing to bring a claim under Title VII. Egbuna v. Time-Life Libraries, Inc., 153 F.3d 184 (4th Cir. 1998). A New Jersey court, despite being located in a different circuit, cited this ruling when it dismissed an undocumented immigrant’s claim for lack of standing under state antidiscrimination law. Crespo v. Evergo Corp., 841 A.2d 471, 473-73 (N.J. App. 2004). Courts in New York have reached similar conclusions, although one U.S. district court expressed doubt that the Second Circuit would follow Egbuna in a similar situation. Olvera-Morales v. Sterling Onions, Inc., 322 F.Supp.2d 211, 220 (N.D.N.Y. 2004).

The employer in Maritime hired the complainant as a vacuumer in May 2012, according to the court’s opinion. He, as well as multiple other Hispanic employees, complained to the employer regarding disparate treatment in July 2013. The employer terminated all of them that day. The complainant and 10 other terminated employees each filed EEOC complaints. The EEOC sought documentation from the employer regarding the complainant. The employer refused on the ground that the EEOC lacked authority, and a court case ensued.

A U.S. district court ruled in the employer’s favor. The Fourth Circuit reversed this ruling. It found that the plain language of Title VII, in its definition of “employee,” its prohibition on discrimination, and its statement of who may bring a claim for discrimination, does not “explicitly bar[] undocumented workers from filing complaints.” Maritime at 9. The court noted that it was not ruling on the merits of the claim, only the EEOC’s authority to investigate.

Employment visa lawyer Samuel C. Berger represents immigrants living in the New York City and Northern New Jersey region, individuals seeking to immigrate to this area, and families and employers petitioning on a prospective immigrant’s behalf. To schedule a confidential consultation with a skilled and experienced immigration advocate, contact us today online, at (201) 587-1500, or at (212) 380-8117.

More Blog Posts:

Immigrants Account for a Substantial Percentage of Business Startups in New Jersey and Around the Country, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, April 28, 2016

Justice Department Issues Warning to Employers Regarding the Employment of Nonimmigrant Labor Contractors, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, February 25, 2016

Optional Practical Training Program for Certain Students with F-1 Visas Extended for Three Months to May 2016, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, February 11, 2016

Photo credit: U.S. Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.