SCOTUS: Decision to quash or enforce an EEOC subpoena is reviewed for abuse of discretion

The US Supreme Court has pulled the 9th Circuit into line with other circuits by holding that a district court’s decision whether to enforce or quash an EEOC subpoena should be reviewed for abuse of discretion, not de novo. McLane Co. v. EEOC (US Supreme Court 04/03/2017) [Opinion text] was unanimous on this question.

This case was an odd duck because both McLane Co. and the EEOC agreed that abuse of discretion was the proper standard. The Court had to press another lawyer into service to present arguments in favor of the 9th Circuit's outlier position that de novo was the correct standard.

Background: Damiana Ochoa filed an EEOC charge alleging sex discrimination based on pregnancy. She claimed she was fired because she failed a strength test following maternity leave. EEOC's investigation included a request for "pedigree information" such as names, addresses, and social security numbers of employees who had been required to take strength tests. The EEOC then issued a subpoena. The district court declined to enforce the subpoena as to pedigree information, writing that the pedigree information was “not relevant at this stage to a determination of whether the [test] systematically discriminates on the basis of gender.” On appeal, the 9th Circuit held that the subpoena should be enforced. In reaching that conclusion, the 9th Circuit reviewed the district court's decision de novo.

The Supreme Court decision by Justice Sotomayor took less than 12 pages to explain that district courts have a better handle on the details of ongoing litigation, and their decisions whether to enforce or quash EEOC subpoenas should be reviewed for abuse of discretion – not de novo.

Here are the reasons:

  • It's the longstanding practice of courts of appeals to use the abuse of discretion standard. This practice includes 30 years of NLRB cases before Title VII was enacted.
  • Subpoena enforcement usually turns on whether the evidence sought is relevant and whether production is unduly burdensome. District courts are better suited to resolving these issues than appellate courts.
  • District courts have more experience with these issues.
  • Deferential review helps streamline the litigation process.

If you're looking for excitement, you won't find it here.

[For recent decisions and pending employment law cases, see Supreme Court Watch.]