Supreme Court: Circuit Courts to Apply Deferential Standard When Reviewing District Enforcement of EEOC Subpoenas

By Mary Kapsak

On April 3, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a district court’s decision whether to enforce or quash an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) subpoena should be reviewed only for an abuse of discretion, not de novo, by the Circuit Courts. The decision,  in McLane Co, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,  explains that a reviewing court cannot reverse a district court’s decision regarding whether to enforce an EEOC subpoena absent a definite and firm conviction that the district court committed a clear error of judgment. 


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 permits the EEOC to issue subpoenas to obtain evidence from employers that is relevant to pending investigations. If an employer believes that the information sought is too broad or indefinite, is being issued for an illegitimate purpose, or is unduly burdensome, the employer may petition the EEOC to revoke the subpoena.  If the EEOC declines to revoke the subpoena and the employer refuses to comply, the EEOC may then request that the district court issue an order enforcing the subpoena. 


The case arose when McLane Co., a supply-chain services company, refused to comply with EEOC subpoenas seeking “pedigree information” such as names, Social Security numbers, addresses and telephone numbers of employees as part of its investigation into age and sex discrimination. The district court declined to enforce the subpoenas, finding that the pedigree information was not relevant to the charges.  The Ninth Circuit reversed after conducting a de novo review of the lower court’s decision.  

When deciding that abuse of discretion was the proper standard of review, the U.S. Supreme Court looked at the history of appellate practice when reviewing subpoenas and considered whether the district or appellate court was better positioned to decide the issue. The Court found that Title VII confers on the EEOC the same authority to issue subpoenas that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) confers on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and that “[d]uring the three decades between the enactment of the NLRA 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.” Moreover, the Supreme Court found that district courts have judicial expertise determining relevancy and are better suited to resolve the “fact-intensive, close calls” that subpoena enforcement cases raise.