The U.S. Supreme Court resolved a circuit court split regarding the standard of review applicable to district court decisions that evaluate the enforceability of EEOC investigative subpoenas and held yesterday that an abuse of discretion standard applies.

In McLane Co., Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Court rejected a de novo standard of review, which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had consistently applied, and adopted the view of other circuit courts that an abuse of discretion standard of review is appropriate. Given this determination, the Supreme Court's decision likely will result in fewer appeals of EEOC subpoena enforcement decisions and, in turn, quicker EEOC investigations.

The case arose out of a gender discrimination charge that Damiana Ochoa filed against her former employer, the McLane Company. After Ms. Ochoa returned from maternity leave, McLane asked her to take a physical evaluation to show she could perform her physically demanding job at a distribution center. After Ms. Ochoa failed the evaluation three times, McLane fired her.

As part of its investigation, the EEOC moved to enforce a subpoena to McLane requesting "pedigree information," including names, Social Security numbers, last known addresses, and telephone numbers of other employees who had been asked to take the evaluation. The U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona refused to enforce the EEOC subpoena, holding that the information was not relevant to an EEOC determination of systematic discrimination, because a determination could be made based on other information McLane had provided.

The EEOC appealed, and the Ninth Circuit reversed. Conducting a de novo review, the Ninth Circuit determined the pedigree information was relevant to the EEOC's investigation because it might be used to locate and interview other employees, which "might cast light on the allegations against McLane—whether positively or negatively."

The Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit opinion. The Court held that a deferential abuse of discretion standard should apply to a district court’s decision on the enforcement of an EEOC investigative subpoena, because the courts of appeal historically have applied a deferential review to district court subpoena decisions. Also, according to the Court, the trial courts are better suited to make the type of fact-intensive, case-specific determinations necessary to evaluate whether to enforce an EEOC subpoena.

The Court's opinion also provided guidance to district courts, stating: "[a] district court deciding whether evidence is 'relevant' under Title VII need not defer to the EEOC's decision on that score; it must simply answer the question cognizant of the agency’s broad authority to seek and obtain evidence." District courts, therefore, may make their own determination, unbound by the EEOC's determination. In assessing an EEOC subpoena, "relevant" should be understood "generously," to permit the EEOC "access to virtually any material that might cast light on the allegations against the employer."

Ballard Spahr's Labor and Employment Group routinely helps employers respond to administrative charges of discrimination.

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