SUPREME COURT LIMITS APPEALS COURT REVIEW OF DISTRICT COURT DECISION REGARDING ENFORCEMENT OF EEOC SUBPOENA

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By Karen L. Piper

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that a federal Court of Appeals should have reviewed a district court’s decision not to enforce an EEOC subpoena for whether the district court abused its discretion, not whether the appeals court would have made the same decision.

The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) is authorized by Title VII to investigate charges of discrimination filed by an employee or by the EEOC, itself.  When investigating, the EEOC is entitled to access “’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.’”  If the employer does not provide the information requested, the EEOC can issue a subpoena.  If the employer does not comply with the subpoena, the EEOC can ask a federal district court to enforce the subpoena and order the employer to provide the requested information.

In this case, an employee, who was discharged after failing a return-to-work physical evaluation three times following a maternity leave, filed a charge of sex (pregnancy) discrimination against her employer, McLane Co.  The EEOC expanded its investigation to include all McLane locations nationwide and to include employees who might have an age discrimination claim.  The EEOC asked McLane for information about other employees who were required to pass a physical evaluation.  McLane provided the information without identifying the employees.  The EEOC issued a subpoena for the employees’ names, addresses, telephone numbers and social security numbers.  McLane did not provide the information.  The EEOC filed suit to enforce its subpoena.  The district court declined to enforce the subpoena.  It ruled that the identifying information was not relevant because: “an individual’s name, or even an interview he or she could provide if contacted, simply could not shed light on whether the [evaluation] represents a tool of … discrimination.” (Brackets and deletions in original.)

The EEOC appealed.  The Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.  It ruled the identifying information was relevant.  McLane appealed. 

The Supreme Court ruled that the Court of Appeals should not have made an independent decision regarding relevance; it should only have reviewed the district court’s decision for an abuse of discretion.  The Supreme Court noted that district courts are well suited to determine both aspects involved in reviewing whether to enforce a subpoena: whether the information requested is relevant and whether it is unduly burdensome to provide in light of the circumstances.  Whether the information is relevant requires a court to evaluate the relationship between the information sought and the matter under investigation.  Whether producing the information is burdensome turns on the nature of the information sought and the difficulty the employer will face in providing it.  The district courts have discretion to make these decisions on a case-by-case basis.  The Supreme Court ruled that appeals courts should limit their review of these decisions to whether the district court abused its discretion, not whether the appeals court would have made the same decision.

Because the Ninth Circuit Court used the wrong standard in reviewing the district court’s decision, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the appeals court’s decision and sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit to review the case again using the correct, abuse-of-discretion standard.

This ruling is good news for employers.  It is not uncommon for the EEOC to request information which exceeds the scope of an individual charge of discrimination.  Employers should have a better chance of convincing a trial court judge than an appeals court that the EEOC’s request for information is irrelevant, overbroad and/or burdensome.  Trial courts are called upon regularly to make these types of decisions.  The EEOC will be less likely to appeal an adverse decision knowing the appeals court review will be limited to determining whether the trial court abused its discretion.  When faced with a broad EEOC request for information or a subpoena that would be burdensome to answer, consult with experienced employment counsel, such as the author, on how to resolve the matter and/or whether to resist the request. 

This article was written by Karen L. Piper, who is Secretary of the Board of Detroit SHRM, a member of the Legal Affairs Committee, and a Member of Bodman PLC, which represents employers, only, in Workplace Law. Ms. Piper can be reached at Bodman’s Troy office at (248) 743-6025 or kpiper@bodmanlaw.com. For further information, go to: http://www.bodmanlaw.com/attorneys/karen-l-piper.

Detroit SHRM encourages members to share these articles with others, inside and outside their organization, as long as its name and logo, and the author’s information are included in the re-post of the article. April 2017.