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April 2017

Lauren S. Fackler

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U.S. Supreme Court Equalizes Standard of Review for EEOC Subpoenas

Earlier this month, in McLane Co., Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court held that courts of appeals should review district courts’ decisions on whether to enforce EEOC subpoenas for abuse of discretion, not de novo.

McLane Co., Inc. is a supply chain services company. It requires new employees and employees returning from medical leave to pass a physical evaluation if they have a physically demanding job. Damiana Ochoa worked for McLane Co. as a cigarette selector, which is a physically demanding job. Ms. Ochoa failed three physical evaluations after she returned from maternity leave so McLane Co. terminated her employment. Ms. Ochoa subsequently filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC alleging wrongful termination based on sex discrimination.

As part of the EEOC’s investigation, the EEOC requested that McLane Co. provide the names, Social Security numbers, addresses, and phone numbers for all of the employees who had physical evaluations. McLane Co. refused to provide this information so the EEOC issued administrative subpoenas. McLane Co. continued to refuse to provide the information so the EEOC filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court to enforce the subpoenas. The Federal District Court found that the information was irrelevant to the charge and declined to enforce the subpoenas. The Ninth Circuit reviewed the lower court’s decision de novo, concluded that the lower court erred in finding the information irrelevant, and reversed the lower court’s decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and held that a district court’s decision whether to enforce an EEOC subpoena should be reviewed for abuse of discretion, not de novo. It noted that the Ninth Circuit was the only Court of Appeals that reviewed issues relating to the enforcement of administrative subpoenas de novo – all of the other Courts of Appeals reviewed for abuse of discretion. Courts of Appeals should defer to district courts’ rulings on whether EEOC subpoenas are irrelevant, too indefinite, issued for an illegitimate purpose, or unduly burdensome. The Court further noted that fact intensive close calls are best resolved by district courts rather than courts of appeals.

If you have any questions about how this decision may affect you or your business, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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