Justices Resolve Circuit Split Over Subpoena Appeals

(CN) – The Supreme Court ruled Monday that appeals of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission subpoenas should only be reviewed for abuse of discretion by a federal judge, finding no need to weigh the evidence again.

The case stems from a 2008 charge that Damiana Ochoa filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after she was unable to return to work at an Arizona subsidiary of McLane Company as a cigarette worker.

When Ochoa returned from maternity leave, the grocery-supply company would not let her resume her job of eight years without taking a physical strength test. She failed three times and was fired.

With the EEOC announcing an investigation into possible Title VII violations, McLane voluntarily provided general information about its strength test and the workers who had to take the test.

McLane created an employee ID number system, however, for the sole purpose of responding to the EEOC’s investigation without divulging identifying information about its workers.

Thus the EEOC learned the gender, job class and score of each employee who took the strength test, but McLane withheld their “pedigree information” – specifically their names, Social Security numbers, addresses and telephone numbers.

In instances where an employee who took the test was later fired, McLane also refused to say when or why such termination occurred.

When the EEOC expanded its investigation beyond the Arizona subsidiary to all McLane grocery-division facilities across the country, McLane withheld similar data.

The EEOC in turn subpoenaed the withheld information, but a federal judge in Arizona largely sided with McLane.

The Ninth Circuit reversed in October 2015, finding that McLane must answer the subpoena about the strength tests it gives workers.

McLane appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in a petition for a writ of certiorari filed last year, arguing that the Ninth Circuit’s ruling conflicts with other circuits “by enforcing a subpoena that amounts to an impermissible fishing expedition for irrelevant material far outside the scope of the charge under investigation.”

“The Ninth Circuit’s decision exacerbates an acknowledged circuit split that pits that court against eight other circuits on the critical question of whether to review de novo, or instead with deference…in enforcing or quashing EEOC subpoenas,” the petition states.

On Monday, the Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s decision, finding it used the wrong standard of review in the McLane case.

The nation’s highest court ruled that a district court’s decision whether to enforce or quash an EEOC subpoena should be reviewed for abuse of discretion instead of being subject to a de novo review, which is done by weighing the evidence anew without giving deference to the lower court’s findings.

“During the three decades between the enactment of the [National Labor Relations Act] and the incorporation of the NLRA’s subpoena-enforcement provi­sions into Title VII, every Circuit to consider the question had held that a district court’s decision whether to enforce an NLRB subpoena should be reviewed for abuse of discre­tion,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority. “By the time Congress amended Title VII to authorize EEOC subpoenas in 1972, it did so against this uniform backdrop of deferen­tial appellate review.”

Sotomayor also said that a federal judge is in a better position than an appeals court to decide whether to enforce or quash an EEOC subpoena.

“In the mine run of cases, the district court’s decision whether to enforce a subpoena will turn either on whether the evi­dence sought is relevant to the specific charge before it or whether the subpoena is unduly burdensome in light of the circumstances. Both tasks are well suited to a district judge’s expertise,” she wrote.

The Supreme Court remanded the case for the Ninth Circuit to review the district court’s decision for abuse of discretion.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan joined Sotomayor in the majority.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed that reviewing for abuse of discretion is the proper standard for EEOC subpoena decisions. However, she dissented in part, saying she would have affirmed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling instead of vacating it.

“Because the district court erred as a matter of law in demanding that the EEOC show more than relevance in order to gain enforcement of its subpoena, I would not disturb the court of appeals’ judgment,” Ginsburg wrote.

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