This week the Federal Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad upheld a District Court decision declining to enforce an administrative subpoena issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).    Two individuals, who applied for employment with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF), filed administrative charges with the EEOC alleging that they were rejected for employment in violation of the Americans With Disability Act.  Both applicants had received conditional offers of employment, subject to a medical screening procedure.

The plaintiffs alleged that BNSF “perceived” them to be disabled and that is why they were not hired.  BNSF asserted that it withdrew the offers based on the medical requirements and safety concerns for the positions for which they applied (Conductor or Conductor Trainee).  BNSF asserted that they were welcome to apply for other positions that did not have the same medical requirements.

During its investigation, the EEOC requested that BNSF produce “any computerized or machine-readable files . . . created or maintained by [BNSF] . . . [for a period of over two years] . . . that contain electronic data about or effecting current and/or former employees . . . throughout theUnited States.”  BNSF challenged the scope of the request and asked for the documentation supporting the EEOC’s much broader investigation.  The EEOC then issued the subpoena claiming that it was now investigating a “pattern and practice” case, justifying the need for the nationwide information.  The EEOC did not explain the basis for its nationwide investigation.  After unsuccessfully proceeding through the administrative process, the EEOC applied to the District Court for enforcement of the subpoena.  Along with its application to the Court, the EEOC, for the first time, stated that there were four similar discrimination charges from four different states.  Although BNSF was obviously served with copies of the charges, it was not aware that they were somehow connected.

The District Court refused to enforce the subpoena, stating that the underlying charge was not a “pattern or practice,” charge and the two individual charges did not support the demand for nationwide data.  The EEOC appealed the District Court’s denial of enforcement to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Court of Appeals held that the EEOC was only entitled to evidence that is relevant to the charge(s) under investigation.  Since the only charges under investigation were the two initial charges, the Court stated that the relevance of the subpoena was limited to those charges.  Based on those two charges, the Court held that the subpoena was overbroad and sustained the District Court’s denial of enforcement.

Interestingly, the Court noted that the EEOC could still investigate the two original charges and if that investigation warranted a broader investigation, it could expand its search.  Alternatively, the Court stated that the EEOC could proceed under at Commissioner’s Charge.  The Court stated that “. . . nationwide recordkeeping data is not ‘relevant to’ charges of individual disability discrimination . . ..”

Although the EEOC may pursue these types of claims as suggested by the Court, this is a lesson that employers should not take for granted that the EEOC’s subpoenas are always enforceable.