As our readers may recall, in November 2012, Judge G. Murray Snow of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona nixed a subpoena issued by the EEOC seeking employee pedigree information (name, address, telephone number and social security number), and information regarding the reasons for employee terminations. The court held that the EEOC did not need this information in order to determine whether the employer, McLane Company, Inc., allegedly violated Title VII. The EEOC appealed.

On October 27, 2015, the Ninth Circuit reversed and sustained the EEOC’s broad subpoena in EEOC v. McLane Company, Inc., Case No. 13-15126, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 187702 (9th Cir. Oct. 27, 2015). The Ninth Circuit held that employee pedigree information was relevant to the EEOC’s investigation and should be produced. Further, the Ninth Circuit held that information regarding termination reasons was also relevant to the investigation, and remanded the matter to the District Court to determine whether the production of this information would be unduly burdensome.

The Ninth Circuit’s opinion is a must read for employers, especially employers doing business in Ninth Circuit states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington). It gives the EEOC broad access to information during the course of an administrative investigation, even if such information is only tangentially related to the underlying charge. This decision will likely embolden the EEOC to demand direct contact information of employees, especially in systemic discrimination cases, thereby making the defense of such charges burdensome and expensive.

Background Facts

A McLane employee, Damiana Ochoa, filed a charge of discrimination against McLane. Ochoa alleged that when she tried to return to work after taking maternity leave, McLane informed her that she could not resume her position unless she passed a physical capability strength test. Id. at *2. Ochoa attempted the test three times. Id. Each time she failed, and, as a result, was terminated. Id.

The EEOC undertook an investigation into the charge, requesting certain information from McLane, including information on the strength test, and the employees who had been required to take the test. Id. at *4. McLane complied with most of the EEOC’s requests, but refused to disclose pedigree information of its employees and it’s the reasons it terminated employee test takers. Id. The EEOC filed a subpoena enforcement action against McLane seeking this information.

The District Court denied the EEOC’s request for this information and the EEOC appealed.

The Ninth Circuit’s Ruling

In considering whether the EEOC was entitled to employee pedigree information, the Ninth Circuit clarified that the EEOC is entitled to “virtually any material that might cast light on the allegations against the employer.” Id. at *9. Under this loose standard, the Ninth Circuit held that employee pedigree information was relevant to the EEOC’s investigation because such information could be used by the EEOC to speak with other employees who took the test and determine whether there was any truth to Ochoa’s allegations. Id. at *11-12.

The Ninth Circuit rejected all three of McLane’s arguments against the enforcement of the subpoena. Id. at *12-17. First, it rejected McLane’s argument that pedigree information was not relevant to the charge because Ochoa only alleged a disparate impact claim, not a disparate treatment claim. Id. at 12. The Ninth Circuit found such information was relevant, reasoning that Ochoa’s charge is framed “general enough” to support either theory. Id.

Second, it rejected McLane’s argument that pedigree information was not necessary to the EEOC’s investigation. The Ninth Circuit stressed that the governing standard was relevance, not necessity, and noted that the pedigree information was clearly relevant to Ochoa’s charge. Id. at +13.

Third, the Ninth Circuit rejected McLane’s argument that pedigree information was not relevant because the strength test was neutrally applied, which, McLane argued cannot, by definition, give rise to disparate treatment, systemic or otherwise. Id. at *15. The Ninth Circuit reasoned that even if the strength test applied to everyone, the test still could be applied in a discriminatory manner. Id. at *15-16. For example, McLane could fire the women who failed the test but not the men who failed. Id.

Finally, the Ninth Circuit turned to the issue of whether the EEOC was entitled to the reasons McLane terminated test takers. Id. at *17-18. Although it determined that this information relevant to the EEOC’s investigation, it noted that McLane did not have to produce this information if it would be unduly burdensome. Id. The Ninth Circuit thus remanded this issue to the District Court for further consideration.

Implication For Employers

The Ninth Circuit’s opinion broadens the scope of information the EEOC may receive when investigating a charge, requiring that a request only be somehow relevant to a charge — quite a loose standard. While employers should continue to object to EEOC requests on the bases of relevance and over breadth, employers should also “tee-up” their arguments that compliance with a request or subpoena is unduly burdensome.