Supreme Court Rules Decisions on EEOC Subpoenas Must Be Reviewed for Abuse of Discretion

April 4, 2017Articles

The United States Supreme Court ruled Monday that a district court’s decision on whether to enforce or quash a subpoena from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) should be reviewed using an abuse of discretion standard. In a 7-1 decision, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the Ninth Circuit, which incorrectly applied a de novo standard of review in the case of McLane Co., Inc. v. EEOC.

The case arose out of Damiana Ochoa’s Title VII suit against her former employer, McLane, who she said discriminated against her on the basis of her gender. McLane is a supply chain services company and Ochoa worked for McLane for eight years. Her job duties were physically demanding and included lifting, packing and moving large bins. When she returned from three months of maternity leave, she was required to take a physical evaluation. All new employees and those returning from medical leave were required to take the test. Ochoa failed the evaluation three times and McLane terminated her employment. She responded by filing a charge of discrimination.

The EEOC, as part of its investigation into Ochoa’s claims, issued subpoenas to McLane requesting so-called “pedigree information,” which included names, Social Security numbers, last known addresses and telephone numbers of all employees who had been asked to take the physical evaluation at various McLane operations nationwide. When McLane refused to turn over the information, the EEOC filed two suits in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona – one based on Ochoa’s claim and another brought by the EEOC itself to determine whether McLane had discriminated against its employees on the basis of age for administering the physical evaluation.

The District Court refused to enforce the subpoenas because the pedigree information was not relevant and “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.” On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed the decision and found that the District Court erred when it held that the pedigree information was irrelevant. The Circuit Court reviewed the decision of the District Court to quash the subpoena de novo, a standard of review that gives no deference to the lower court. McLane thereafter appealed to the Supreme Court and argued that a district court’s decision to enforce or quash a subpoena issued by the EEOC should be reviewed for abuse of discretion, which affords deference to the district court’s decision.

Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the Court looks at two factors to determine whether a district court’s decision should be subject to deferential appellate review. “First, we ask whether the history of appellate practice yields an answer. Second…we ask whether, as a matter of the sound administration of justice, one judicial actor is better positioned than another to decide the issue in question.” The majority found that both factors pointed toward the use of the abuse of discretion standard. The Court noted the “longstanding practice of the courts of appeals in reviewing the district court’s decision to enforce or quash an administrative subpoena is to review that decision for abuse of discretion.” Regarding the second factor, the Court stated that the district court’s decision in these cases will turn on whether the evidence sought is relevant or whether the subpoena is unduly burdensome under the circumstances. “Both tasks are well suited to a district judge’s expertise.”

For these reasons, the Court held, “[A] district court’s decision to enforce an EEOC subpoena should be reviewed for abuse of discretion, not de novo.” The case was remanded with instructions to the Court of Appeals to review the District Court’s decision under the appropriate standard. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued a separate opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice Ginsburg agreed abuse of discretion is generally the proper review for district court decisions on EEOC subpoenas, but found the District Court erred as a matter of law by demanding the EEOC show more than relevance to gain enforcement of its subpoena. Therefore, Justice Ginsburg would have affirmed the Ninth Circuit.

The Supreme Court’s decision puts the Ninth Circuit’s standard of review in line with the other circuits that have analyzed the issue. The majority opinion noted, “[T]he Ninth Circuit alone applies a more searching form of review.” While the Court stated that the inquiry into the proper standard of review should not be resolved by a “head-counting exercise,” the “long history of appellate practice here…carries significant persuasive weight.”

For specific questions about this opinion, EEOC investigations, or employment-based claims in general, please contact your Dinsmore attorney.