Seyfarth Synopsis: Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its long-awaited decision in McLane Co. v. EEOC, No. 15-1248, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 2327 (U.S. 2017), a decision that clarifies the scope of review for employers facing EEOC administrative subpoenas. The Supreme Court held that such decisions are reviewable under the abuse-of-discretion standard, which is a relatively high bar of review. At the same time, the Supreme Court’s ruling clarifies that EEOC subpoenas are subject to a searching, fact-intensive review that does not lend itself to a “one size fits all” approach.

Background

This case arose out of a Title VII charge brought by a woman who worked as a “cigarette selector,” a physically demanding job, requiring employees to lift, pack, and move large bins of products. After the charging party returned from three months of maternity leave, she was required to undergo a physical capabilities evaluation that was required for all new employees and employees returning from leave or otherwise away from the physically demanding aspects of their job for more than 30 days, regardless of reason. The charging party was allowed three times to meet the level required for her position, but failed each time. McLane then terminated her employment.

The charging party claimed that her termination was because of her gender, and further alleged disability discrimination. During the investigation of her EEOC charge, the Commission requested, among other things, a list of employees who were requested to take the physical evaluation. Although McLane provided a list that included each employee’s gender, role at the company, evaluation score, and the reason each employee had been asked to take the evaluation, the company refused to provide “pedigree information,” relative to names, social security numbers, last known addresses, and telephone numbers of employees on that list. In the process of negotiating the scope of information that would be provided, the EEOC learned that McLane used its physical evaluation on a nationwide basis. The EEOC therefore expanded the scope of its investigation to be nationwide in scope, and also filed its own charge alleging age discrimination.

The District Court refused to order the production of pedigree information, holding that it was not “relevant” to the charge at issue because that information (or even interviews of the employees on the list provided by McLane) could not shed light on whether an evaluation represented a tool of discrimination. EEOC v. McLane Company, Inc., No. 12-CV-02469 (D. Ariz. Nov. 19, 2012) (See our blog post of the District Court’s decision here.)

On October 27, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit reviewed the District Court’s decision de novo and held that the District Court had erred in finding the pedigree information irrelevant to the EEOC’s investigation. EEOC v. McLane Company, Inc., Case No. 13-15126, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 187702 (9th Cir. Oct. 27, 2015). (See our blog post of the Ninth Circuit’s decision here.)

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the disagreement among the courts of appeals regarding the appropriate scope of review on appeal. The posture of the appeal was somewhat unusual because, after the grant of certiorari, the EEOC and McLane both agreed that the District Court’s decision should be reviewed for abuse of discretion, although the EEOC argued that the Ninth Circuit’s decision should stand as a matter of law. The Supreme Court therefore appointed an amicus curiae to defend the Ninth Circuit’s use of de novo review.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court began its analysis by noting that in the absence of explicit statutory command, the proper scope of appellate review is based on two factors: (1) the history of appellate practice; and (2) whether one judicial actor is better positioned than another to decide the issue in question.

Regarding the first factor, the Supreme Court noted that abuse-of-discretion review was the longstanding practice of the courts of appeals when reviewing a decision to enforce or quash an administrative subpoena. In particular, the Supreme Court noted that Title VII had conferred on the EEOC the same subpoena authority that the National Labor Relations Act had conferred on the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”), and decisions of district court to enforce or quash an NLRB subpoena were reviewed for abuse of discretion.

Regarding the second factor, the Supreme Court held that the decision to enforce or quash an EEOC subpoena is case-specific, and one that does not depend on a neat set of legal rules. Rather, a district court addressing such issues must apply broad standards to “multifarious, fleeting, special, narrow facts that utterly resist generalization.” McLane Co. v. EEOC, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 2327, at *14 (U.S. 2017) (quoting Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U. S. 552, 561-62 (1988)). In particular, in order to determine whether evidence is relevant, the district court has to evaluate the relationship between the particular materials sought and the particular matter under investigation. These types of fact-intensive considerations are more appropriately done by the district courts rather than the courts of appeals.

The Amicus argued that the district court’s primary role is to test the legal sufficiency of the subpoena, which does not require the exercise of discretion. The Supreme Court held that this view of the abuse-of-discretion standard was too narrow. The abuse-of-discretion standard is not only applicable where a decision-maker has a broad range of choices as to what to decide, but also extends to situations where it is appropriate to give a district court’s decision an unusual amount of insulation from appellate revision for functional reasons. Those functional considerations weighed in favor of the abuse-of-discretion standard rather than a de novo standard of review. Because the Ninth Circuit did not apply that standard on appeal, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit for further proceedings.

Implications For Employers

The McLane case is important for employers because it clarifies the standard of review that is applied to the review of district court decisions enforcing or quashing EEOC subpoenas. Although the Supreme Court adopted the more “hands off” abuse-of-discretion standard, thus giving even more weight to the district court’s judgment, it did so because it identified the fact-intensive nature of these judgment calls, including important decisions about how difficult it would be for the employer to produce the requested information weighed against the need for that information, and the relationship between the particular materials sought and the particular matter under investigation.

At the very least, this language shows that the EEOC does not get to automatically presume relevance of its administrative subpoenas at the outset, as the EEOC sometimes likes to argue. Rather, employers should be able to cite to language in the Supreme Court’s opinion to reinforce the fact that the district court must give serious consideration to issues of relevancy and burden (also whether the subpoena is “too indefinite” or for an “illegitimate purpose”) when deciding whether to enforce an EEOC subpoena.

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.