A Win For Transparency

Yesterday, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, the Court turned the tables on the EEOC on a controversial subpoena issue. The EEOC has traditionally used broad subpoenas attempting to extract sensitive and expansive information from employers in cases around the country. (Click here and here to read more.) But here, the EEOC attempted to limit the records the employer could obtain from subpoenas of its own. The Court, however, wouldn’t bite on the EEOC’s argument, and denied the EEOC’s Motion to Quash Chipotle’s subpoenas seeking employment records from claimant’s former and current employers to aid in its defense.

Case Background And Holding

Now for the details: in EEOC v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., Case No. 1:13-cv-11503-FDS (D.Mass.), the EEOC sued Chipotle on behalf of a former employee alleging that the employee was unlawfully terminated due to her disability. During discovery, Chipotle served several third party subpoenas on the claimant’s other employers seeking her personnel files, wage records, and other records pertaining to her employment (including applications and resumes). Chipotle sought these records in order to defend itself, in part, by demonstrating that the claimant failed to mitigate her damages. Although the EEOC admitted that its claimant’s wage records were relevant to a failure to mitigate defense, and provided the claimant’s W-2s to Chipotle, the EEOC nevertheless insisted that the Court throw out subpoenas as to the claimant’s personnel files, applications, and resumes.

At yesterday’s motion hearing in Boston, the EEOC argued that Chipotle’s subpoenas were overreaching, were not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence, and were not necessary for Chipotle’s failure to mitigate defense. Chipotle, on the other hand, stressed that the claimant’s applications and resumes were necessary to support Chipotle’s defense, as the documents would show the claimant’s employment qualifications, efforts to obtain employment, and would be an essential tool for its expert economist to determine what jobs Plaintiff was qualified for and how many of those jobs were available.

Although the EEOC argued that Chipotle could obtain this information during the claimant’s deposition, the Court refused to restrict Chipotle’s access to  only depositions and noted that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provided for broad discovery. The Court denied the EEOC’s motion to quash finding that Chipotle’s third party subpoenas for the Plaintiff’s employment records were relevant to Chipotle’s defense but declined to comment on their admissibility.

Implications For Employers

Employers are often frustrated by what they often view as an asymmetric playing field: the EEOC demands to be treated like any other litigant for some issues, but often argues that it should be treated differently (and more favorably) in others because it is a “law enforcement agency.” This case is a quiet but meaningful win for an employer attempting to obtain the same sort of discovery that it would from virtually any other private litigant.  Employers should be encouraged that some jurisdictions like the Court here will rule to keep the playing field even.