Supreme Court Limits Appellate Review of District-Court Decisions on Enforceability of EEOC Administrative Subpoenas to Deferential, Abuse-of-Discretion StandardSupreme Court’s Decision in McLane v. EEOC Brings Standard of Review of EEOC Subpoenas in the Ninth Circuit in Line with All Other Circuits to Consider the Question. April 3, 2017
McLane Co., a supply-chain services company, requires employees working in physically demanding jobs to pass a physical evaluation upon hiring and after returning from medical leave. Damiana Ochoa, a McLane employee working in a physically demanding job, failed the physical examination three times after returning from maternity leave and was fired. Ms. Ochoa filed a charge of sex discrimination, and the EEOC began investigating McLane. McLane produced anonymized data about physical evaluations of its employees, but did so without providing “pedigree information,” such as employee names, Social Security numbers, addresses, and telephone numbers. The EEOC subpoenaed this pedigree information but McLane refused to comply. The EEOC thereafter filed suit against McLane alleging both sex and age discrimination and sought to enforce its subpoena. The district court quashed the subpoena, holding that the pedigree information was not “relevant” to the charges. The Ninth Circuit reviewed the district court’s ruling de novo and reversed.
On April 3, in McLane Co. v. EEOC, No. 15-1248 (Apr. 3, 2017), the U.S. Supreme Court held that “a district court’s decision to enforce an EEOC subpoena should be reviewed for abuse of discretion, not de novo.” The Court emphasized that “the longstanding practice of the courts of appeals in reviewing a district court’s decision to enforce or quash an administrative subpoena,” such as those issued by the EEOC or NLRB, “is to review that decision for abuse of discretion.” That is because the enforceability of administrative subpoenas turns on “case-specific” factors of relevance and burden, which are “well suited to a district judge’s expertise.” The Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s decision and remanded for review applying an abuse-of-discretion standard.
The Court’s decision resolves the split among circuit courts over the standard of review that applies to the enforceability of EEOC subpoenas: “[a]lmost every Court of Appeals reviews such a decision for abuse of discretion,” while “the Ninth Circuit alone applies a more searching form of review.” The Court’s ruling ensures that all circuit courts will apply “the same deferential review to a district court’s decision as to whether to enforce an EEOC subpoena.”
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