Supreme Court Rules on EEOC Subpoena Standard of Review

Author: Marta Moakley, XpertHR Legal Editor

April 5, 2017

The Supreme Court has ruled on a case that initially challenged the breadth of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) administrative subpoena. The McLane Co., Inc., v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission decision aligns the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' standard of review for EEOC subpoenas with that of the other circuits. The ruling was welcomed by employer groups that have expressed concern regarding possible EEOC overreach during investigations.

In McLane, when a female employee at a supply-chain services company returned from maternity leave, she was asked to take a physical evaluation. The company required employees in physically demanding jobs to take a physical evaluation when returning from a medical leave. The employee failed the evaluation three times, and was terminated.

The employee then filed a sex discrimination charge under Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964. The EEOC began its investigation, asking the company for employees':

  • Names;
  • Social Security numbers;
  • Addresses; and
  • Telephone numbers.

The EEOC only requested the information of employees who had been asked to take the physical evaluation. However, the company refused to provide the information. The EEOC then broadened its investigation, requesting employee information for all employees at the company, including termination information for any workers taking the physical evaluation. The company again refused to comply with the request.

The EEOC issued administrative subpoenas for the information, and sought to enforce those in federal district court. The federal district judge declined to enforce the subpoenas, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.

However, the 9th Circuit reviewed the lower court's determination using a de novo standard - reviewing all of the facts anew. Nearly every circuit court of appeals applies a more deferential standard of review - an abuse-of-discretion review. Using this more deferential standard, a court of appeals would act only if there was an absence of a sound, reasonable and legal judgment, or a clearly erroneous conclusion, on the part of the lower court.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, holding that a district court's decision whether to enforce or quash an EEOC subpoena should be reviewed only for abuse of discretion. The Court noted that the practice of reviewing for abuse of discretion in nearly every other circuit was highly persuasive. The opinion also explained that the district judge - the trial judge with the greatest knowledge of the parties and particular circumstances of a case - is in the best position to determine facts and evidence regarding the "nature, purposes and scope of the inquiry."