Although the EEOC’s subpoena authority is broad, a recent 11th Circuit Court of Appeals case shows that it has limits.
In EEOC v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., the 11th Circuit affirmed the lower court’s holding that an EEOC subpoena was overbroad and unenforceable. The case began when a single employee from the cruise ship filed a charge of alleged disability discrimination with the EEOC. The employer defended its decision not to re-hire the employee by arguing that it could not employ the employee due to standards developed by the Bahamas Maritime Authority (BMA). After the charge was filed, the EEOC issued an administrative subpoena that requested the employer to produce the following information:
- A list of all employees who were discharged or whose contracts were not renewed due to a medical reason since August of 2009;
- For each employee identified in response to request number 1, the employee’s name, citizenship, employment contract, position title, reason for and date of discharge, a copy of the separation notice and the last known contact information for each individual;
- For each employee listed in response to request number 1, the employee’s employment application and related correspondence, interview notes, the identity of the person who hired the employee, how the employee obtained the position (e.g., online, in person, recruiter), the location where the employee was interviewed, and the identity and location of the person who made the final hiring decision;
- A list of all persons who applied for a position but were not hired within the relevant period due to a medical reason; and
- For each employee listed in response to request number 4, the employee’s citizenship, employment application and related correspondence, interview notes, the identity of the person who hired the employee, how the employee obtained the position (e.g., online, in person, recruiter), the location where the employee was interviewed, and the identity and location of the person who made the final hiring decision.
The district court refused to enforce the subpoena on the grounds that the information sought was not relevant to the underlying charge of discrimination, and the EEOC appealed.
The 11th Circuit explained that when investigating a charge of discrimination, the EEOC is entitled to subpoena information that “is relevant to the charge under investigation.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-8(a). Although courts have interpreted relevancy broadly in this context, it is not limitless.
The 11th Circuit held that it was not clear “why company-wide data regarding employees and applicants around the world with any medical condition, including conditions not specifically covered by the BMA medical standards or similar to [the employee’s medical condition], would shed light on [the employee’s] individual charge . . . .” The court noted that because the employer admitted terminating the employee due to his medical condition, as required by BMA standards, there was no need for statistical data to determine whether the employer’s reason for the termination was a pretext for discrimination – that issue was settled. The court further explained that it would be unduly burdensome for the company to comply with the subpoena given its company-wide scope and the extensive requests for supporting documentation. As a result, the 11th Circuit affirmed the lower court’s refusal to enforce the subpoena.
Takeaway: The EEOC’s subpoena power is broad, but not unlimited. If information sought by an EEOC subpoena is not relevant to the underlying charge of discrimination, there may be a basis for an employer to oppose the subpoena. But employers need to act quickly when they receive an EEOC subpoena because EEOC regulations only give employers a limited period of five days to object to a subpoena.