By Howard M. Wexler

In the closely watched case of EEOC v. BMW Manufacturing Co., LLC, 13-CV-1583 (D.S.C.), which concerns the EEOC’s “Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Under Title VII (most recently discussed here, the parties have waged a discovery battle over whether the EEOC should be forced to respond to discovery concerning its own use of criminal background checks and credit histories during the hiring practices.  Although the EEOC won the initial battle when a Magistrate Judge held that the it did not have to produce this evidence, the dust has settled and BMW has won the war. In a ruling of December 8, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Henry M. Herlong Jr. ordered the EEOC to produce “all documents that constitute, contain, describe, reflect, mention, or refer or relate to any policy, guideline, standard, or practice utilized by the EEOC in accessing the criminal conviction record of applicants for employment with the EEOC.” EEOC v. BMW Manufacturing Co., LLC, 13-CV-1583, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169849, at *4 (D.S.C. Dec. 2, 2014).

This decision represents a big win for BMW as well as all employers staring down the barrel of the EEOC’s “do as we say, not as we do” enforcement policies.

Case Background

The EEOC filed suit against BMW alleging that “its criminal conviction background check policy constitutes an unlawful employment practice in violation of…Title VII…because BMW’s policy had, and continues to have, a significant disparate impact on black employees and applicants and is not job-related and consistent with business necessity.” Id. at *1. This case is one of a handful of systemic cases that the EEOC has filed in recent years over employers use of background check policies.  The EEOC has suffered several resounding defeats in their pursuit of this initiative, including the landmark case against Kaplan Higher Education Corp. (most recently discussed here) where the Sixth Circuit upbraided the EEOC for the “homemade” methodology that the agency used to determine race in that case – namely, by asking “race raters” to assign race based on drivers’ license photographs – concluding that it was “crafted by a witness with no particular expertise to craft it, administered by persons with no particular expertise to administer it, tested by no one, and accepted only by the witness himself.”

The Court’s Decision

Upon the Magistrate Judge’s denial of its motion to compel, BMW filed Rule 72 objections with Judge Herlong requesting that he overrule the Magistrate Judge’s decision given the relevance of the requested information. Id. at *1. The Magistrate Judge denied BMW’s request because “considering the burdens of proof in a disparate impact case and in light of BMW’s motion to compel, BMW has failed to explain how production of the EEOC’s convictions policy contributes to its ability to prove that BMW’s criminal conviction policy at issue is job-related and/or is consistent with a stated business necessity.” Id. at *2-3.

Judge Herlong disagreed with the Magistrate Judge’s reasoning, instead finding that the EEOC had the burden of establishing “why its objections are proper given the broad and liberal construction of the federal rules” and that it failed to meet this burden. Id. at *3. Although Judge Herlong noted that the EEOC based its argument on the fact that its own policies are not relevant because “the positions for which the EEOC utilized its policy were not similar to the positions at issue in this litigation,” he held that BMW is not simply required to sit back and “accept the EEOC’s position” without discovery as to its policies or information concerning the positions for which they are used. Id. Accordingly, Judge Herlong ordered the EEOC to produce the requested information since “this production should not be burdensome to the EEOC, and the Court can perceive no harm to the EEOC in producing its internal policies.” Id.

Implications For Employers

This decision represents a big win for employers given the EEOC’s general reluctance to allow a “look behind the curtain.” This is not a surprise since in affirming dismissal of the EEOC’s case against Kaplan, the Sixth Circuit honed in on the fact that the EEOC had initiated a pattern or practice lawsuit against an employer for using “the same type of background check that the EEOC itself uses.” This is yet another decision that highlights the fact that simply because the EEOC says certain information is not relevant does not make it so. Employers should be able to put this ruling to good use for current and future discovery battles with the EEOC.

Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.