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April 03, 2017

Supreme Court Decides McLane Co., Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

On April 3. 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court decided McLane Co., Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, holding that a district court’s decision whether to enforce or quash an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) subpoena is reviewed on appeal for abuse of discretion, and not reviewed de novo.

In 2007, Damiana Ochoa took three months of maternity leave from her job at McLane Co. McLane requires new employees and employees returning from medical leave to take a physical evaluation if their jobs are physically demanding, as Ms. Ochoa’s was. Ms. Ochoa failed to pass the evaluation after three attempts. McLane fired her, and she filed a charge of gender discrimination with the EEOC.

As part of its investigation of Ms. Ochoa’s charge as well as its own separate age discrimination charge against McLane, the EEOC issued subpoenas to McLane requesting names, Social Security numbers, and contact information regarding employees whom McLane had required to take the evaluation. McLane refused to provide the information, so the EEOC filed actions in federal district court to enforce the subpoenas.

The district court declined to enforce the subpoenas, finding that the information was not relevant to the charges. The Ninth Circuit reversed. Consistent with Circuit precedent, the court reviewed the district court’s decision to quash the subpoena de novo, and concluded that the district court had erred in finding the information irrelevant. But the Ninth Circuit panel questioned why it reviewed such decisions de novo, when other circuits applied abuse-of-discretion review.

The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s judgment, holding that federal appellate courts must review a district court’s decision whether to enforce an EEOC subpoena for abuse of discretion, and not de novo. The Court explained that both the history of appellate practice and the “sound administration of justice” pointed toward abuse-of-discretion review. First, federal courts of appeals have long reviewed district courts’ decisions to enforce or quash an administrative subpoena for abuse of discretion. Second, “basic principles of institutional capacity” favor deferential review, including the need to apply “broad standards to ‘multifarious, fleeting, special, narrow facts that utterly resist generalization.’” The Court concluded that other “functional considerations” supported its decision, including the “considerable experience” of district courts making similar decisions in other contexts, and the fact that the deferential review will streamline the litigation process.

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan joined. Justice Ginsburg filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

Download Opinion of the Court

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