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Fourth Circuit Backs Broad EEOC Subpoena Power

    Client Alerts
  • August 03, 2012

When faced with a Charge of Discrimination, employers sometimes receive requests for information from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that they view as overly broad or irrelevant to the allegations contained in the Charge. While the employer and the EEOC often negotiate the scope of the request, a new decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina) confirms the agency's authority to compel extensive information about the employer's practices.

In EEOC v. Randstad, a former employee filed a Charge against a temporary staffing agency alleging national origin, then disability discrimination. The claim involved one Maryland employee who alleged that he was excluded from light industrial assignments based on a literacy requirement. In its request for information, the EEOC asked for information relating to all assignments by the company at each of its 13 Maryland locations over a four-year period. The employer objected based on the relevance and cost of complying with the request.

The Fourth Circuit reversed a lower court decision and upheld the EEOC subpoena. The court concluded that the EEOC's subpoena power is broader than the normal relevance standard used in litigation. As long as the agency's request is not "obviously wrong" in terms of its relation to the Charge, it does not have to demonstrate relevance. In addition, the estimated $20,000 in compliance costs asserted by the company did not sway the Fourth Circuit because the employer did not show that such costs would threaten or seriously disrupt its business.

Based on this decision, employers may ultimately have little leverage when negotiating the scope of an EEOC Request for Information. Any negotiations may have the best chance of success when made early with the investigator, before the matter rises to the attention of the agency's legal counsel.