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Supreme Court Defers to Lower Court Determinations on EEOC Subpoena Powers

    Client Alerts
  • April 12, 2017

In a disturbingly increasing number of charge investigations, employers have faced broad information requests from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), including requests that appear unrelated to the charging party’s underlying claims. If the employer resists the requests, the EEOC often issues an administrative subpoena and seeks court enforcement of its demand for employer information. Last Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in a 7-1 decision that absent an abuse of discretion, district courts’ determinations on the merits of the EEOC subpoenas should prevail.

In McLane v. EEOC, an employee filed an EEOC charge alleging ADA and sex discrimination violations relating to her return to work from maternity leave. During the charge investigation, the EEOC sought extensive information about other workers who returned to work from leave, including contact information, and reasons for departure from employment. The employer objected to an eventual EEOC subpoena on the basis that it was overly broad and burdensome. The federal district court refused to enforce most of the subpoena, finding that the information request was not relevant to the underlying charge.

The EEOC appealed, and the Ninth Circuit issued a de novo determination, concluding that the subpoena was in fact relevant. This decision differed from eight other federal appellate circuits, which concluded that the appellate court can only review the district court’s decision for abuse of discretion, and cannot entirely rehear arguments based on the merits of the subpoena.

The Supreme Court agreed with the employer, reversing the Ninth Circuit, and requiring federal appeals courts to defer to district courts’ determinations absent an abuse of discretion. This tougher standard means that the EEOC will be limited in its ability to seek substantive review of an adverse decision from a federal district court. Eventually, this restriction may cause the EEOC to narrow its requests to information more directly related to the charges under investigation.