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U.S. Supreme Court Sets Standard of Review For EEOC Subpoena

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been charged with enforcing employee rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In furtherance of that charge, the EEOC has the power to issue a subpoena to gather evidence it believes is necessary to a discrimination investigation. If an employer refuses to comply with the subpoena, the EEOC may ask a district court to issue an order enforcing it. When faced with an EEOC request for enforcement of a subpoena, the district court may not test the strength of the underlying complaint. The U.S. Supreme Court has previously held that a district court must “satisfy itself that the charge is valid and that the material requested is ‘relevant’ to the charge.”

In McClane Co. Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the EEOC had appealed a decision by a district court not to enforce its subpoena. The subpoena in question had sought the “pedigree” information of some potential witnesses. “Pedigree” referred to the names, Social Security numbers, last known addresses and telephone numbers of certain employees. The district court did not find the information relevant to the EEOC’s investigation. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the denial after reviewing the matter de novo, or from the beginning, finding the pedigree information relevant.

The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that a district court’s decision with regard to an EEOC subpoena may only be reviewed by a circuit court using the standard abuse of discretion. It may not review the decision de novo. In support of its decision, the Court looked at the longstanding history of circuit courts using the abuse of discretion standard to review administrative subpoenas quashed by district courts. Similarly, most circuit courts have used the abuse of discretion standard to review a district court’s decision whether to enforce an EEOC subpoena. The Supreme Court also asserted that the decision whether to uphold a specific subpoena must be fact based on each individual situation, a task more suited institutionally for district courts.