SCOTUS Clarifies Standard For District Court Evaluation of EEOC Subpoenas in Employment Discrimination Cases

In McLane Co. v. E.E.O.C., No. 15-1248, 2017 WL 1199454 (U.S. Apr. 3, 2017), as revised (Apr. 3, 2017), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a district court’s decision to enforce or quash an EEOC subpoena should be reviewed for abuse of discretion, and not (as the Ninth Circuit held) de novo.

The facts of the case are not directly pertinent to the precise legal issue addressed by the Court. That said, this case arises out of a Title VII gender discrimination lawsuit filed by a woman who, upon returning from maternity leave, was required to take a physical evaluation; she was fired after failing to pass the evaluation.

In the ensuing EEOC proceeding, the employer refused to provide so-called “pedigree information”, i.e., “the names, Social Security numbers, last known addresses, and telephone numbers of the employees who had been asked to take the evaluation.” The EEOC filed two federal actions seeking enforcement of its subpoenas.

The Court’s decision sheds light on how the EEOC evaluates cases that are submitted to it in the form of a Charge of Discrimination.

This case is about one of the tools the EEOC has at its disposal in conducting its investigation: a subpoena. In order [t]o enable the [EEOC] to make informed decisions at each stage of the enforcement process, Title VII confers a broad right of access to relevant evidence. It provides that the EEOC shall … have access to, for the purposes of examination, … any evidence of any person being investigated or proceeded against that relates to unlawful employment practices covered by Title VII and “is relevant to the charge under investigation. And the statute enables the EEOC to obtain that evidence by authoriz[ing] [it] to issue a subpoena and to seek an order enforcing [the subpoena]. Under that authority, the EEOC may issue subp[o]enas requiring the attendance and testimony of witnesses or the production of any evidence. An employer may petition the EEOC to revoke the subpoena, but if the EEOC rejects the petition and the employer still refuse[s] to obey [the] subp[o]ena, the EEOC may ask a district court to issue an order enforcing it.

A district court’s role in an EEOC subpoena enforcement proceeding, we have twice explained, is a straightforward one. A district court is not to use an enforcement proceeding as an opportunity to test the strength of the underlying complaint. Rather, a district court should satisfy itself that the charge is valid and that the material requested is “relevant” to the charge. … If the charge is proper and the material requested is relevant, the district court should enforce the subpoena unless the employer establishes that the subpoena is “too indefinite,” has been issued for an “illegitimate purpose,” or is unduly burdensome.

In holding that abuse of discretion is the appropriate standard, the court noted (inter alia) that “district courts have considerable experience in other contexts making decisions similar—though not identical—to those they must make in this one” (such as whether evidence is relevant at trial).

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