October 1998

Workplace Labor Update - Unauthorized Alien Precluded from Bringing Title VII Action – October 1998

3 min

Foreign nationals who cannot demonstrate their eligibity to work in the United States under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) may not maintain an action under Title VII, recently held the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Egbuna v. Time-Life Libraries, Inc., 1998 WL 512881 (4th Cir. 1998). Obiura Egbuna, a native of Nigeria, was hired by Time-Life Libraries, Inc. (TLLI) in June 1989. At the time of his hire, Egbuna had a valid student work visa. Six months later, however, Egbuna's work visa expired. Fearing deportation, Egbuna never attempted to obtain new work authorization. TLLI failed to note the expiration of Egbuna's work visa and continued his employment until April 1993. During the course of his employment at TLLI, Egbuna received a complaint from one of his subordinates that he had been sexually harassed by another supervisor. In contravention of company policy, Egbuna failed to report the complaint to the Human Resources Department. When the company eventually investigated the complaint, however, Egbuna corroborated many of the allegations of sexual harassment. In April 1993, Egbuna decided to return to Nigeria and voluntarily resigned his position at TLLI. Two months later, Egbuna's plans having changed, he approached TLLI about the possibility of re-employment. TLLI declined to rehire Egbuna because of his failure to follow company policy regarding the reporting of sexual harassment complaints. Thereafter, Egbuna filed suit under Title VII alleging that TLLI had refused to hire him because he had participated in proceedings related to the sexual harassment investigation. The district court granted judgment in TLLI's favor on the ground that Egbuna's lack of work authorization at the time that he sought re-employment with TLLI rendered him unqualified for the position. A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals reversed the district court's decision, concluding that an alien without work authorization is not precluded from establishing a prima facie case of discrimination. Egbuna v. Time-Life Libraries, Inc., 95 F.3d 353 (4th Cir. 1996). That decision was vacated, however, when the Court granted a rehearing of the case en banc. On rehearing, a full panel of the Court of Appeal's judges held that because IRCA prohibits the employment of undocumented aliens, Egbuna could not, as a matter of law, establish a prima facie case of discrimination under Title VII. As the Court explained, IRCA requires employers to verify the immigration status of job applicants by examining specified documents. If an applicant cannot present the required documentation, IRCA prohibits employers from hiring the applicant. Thus, the Court reasoned that whether an alien applicant is "qualified" for a position necessarily hinges on his immigration status. If an alien is not legally authorized to work in the United States, he is not "qualified" for the position that he seeks and cannot maintain an action under Title VII, which conditions its remedies on a showing that the applicant is "qualified" for the position. The Court further noted that a ruling in Egbuna's favor "would sanction the formation of a statutorily declared illegal relationship, expose TLLI to civil and criminal penalties, and illogically create an entitlement simply because Egbuna applied for a job despite his illegal presence in this country and despite his having been statutorily disqualified from employment in the United States." This decision is significant because it resolves a potential conflict between IRCA and Title VII, and protects employers who refuse to hire undocumented aliens in compliance with IRCA from nevertheless being subject to liability under Title VII for that hiring decision.