The Broad Power of the EEOC to Subpoena Evidence from an Employer

On April 3, 2017, the United States Supreme Court delivered an opinion in which it discussed the authority of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), to issue a subpoena to obtain evidence from an employer that is relevant to its investigation of a charge of employment discrimination.  McLane Company, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 581 U.S. __ (2017).  Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin and provides the EEOC with enforcement authority.  When a charge of discrimination is filed, the EEOC is required to notify the employer and conduct an investigation of the charge.  It is authorized to issue, and seek enforcement from a district court, of a subpoena to obtain documents, data or witness testimony that is relevant to its investigation of the unlawful employment practices alleged in a charge.

This case involved a charge of sex discrimination filed by a female employee, who worked eight years as a "cigarette selector" for a supply-chain services company, until she was fired when she attempted to return from three months' maternity leave, but failed a physical evaluation.  She claimed that the company unlawfully terminated her employment because of her gender.  In connection with her charge, the EEOC issued subpoenas to the company for basic information about other employees who were required to take the same evaluation.  The EEOC expanded the scope of the subpoenas, both geographically, to cover the company's nationwide use of the evaluation, and substantively, to investigate potential age discrimination arising from the use of the evaluation (pursuant to a related age discrimination charge filed by the EEOC itself).  After the company refused to comply with the subpoenas, the EEOC filed an enforcement action in federal district court.  The district judge declined to enforce the subpoenas, on the ground that the information sought was not relevant.  On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed.  The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the disagreement between the federal appellate courts over the appropriate standard of review for the decision whether to enforce an EEOC subpoena.  It held that a district court's decision whether to enforce or quash an EEOC subpoena should be reviewed for abuse of discretion, not de novo.  This brand new Supreme Court opinion also illustrates the subpoena power of the EEOC to obtain a broad range of information from employers based solely upon a single charge of discrimination.