Workplace Class Action Blog

Court Limits The EEOC’s Investigative Power By Finding That The EEOC Is Not Entitled to “Unconstrained Investigative Authority”

Posted in EEOC Litigation

District_of_Arizona_District_Court.pngBy Courtney Bohl and Laura J. Maechtlen

On November 19, 2012, in EEOC v. McLane Company, Inc., No. 12-CV-02469 (D. Ariz. Nov. 19, 2012), Judge G. Murray Snow of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona held that the EEOC’s authority to investigate charges of discrimination is not unlimited. Judge Snow denied the EEOC’s application to enforce portions of an administrative subpoena on the grounds that: (1) the EEOC did not have jurisdiction to investigate a generalized charge of discrimination that is not tied to a specific aggrieved party; and (2) some of the EEOC’s information requests were overbroad and irrelevant to the underlying charge. This ruling is a must read for any employer facing overbroad EEOC investigations and requests for information.

Background Facts

A McLane Company, Inc. (“McLane”) employee, Damiana Ochoa, filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC based on sex and disability. Id. at 1. Ochoa’s first claim alleged that she failed McLane’s Industrial Physical Capacity Services Physical Capacity Exam (“IPCS PCE” or “test”) three times after returning to work from maternity leave and consequently believed that she was discriminated against because of her sex in violation of Title VII. Id. at 2. The second claim alleged that the IPCS PCE is given to all employees returning to work from a medical leave and she believed that this practice violated the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 as amended. Id. Based Ochoa’s charge, the EEOC requested a variety of information from McLane in relation to the administration of the IPCS PCE including pedigree information for every person who took the IPCS PCE (name, address, social security number, etc.), the reason the person took the test, the person’s score on the test, any adverse action that McLane took based on the person’s performance on the IPCS PCE, and medical and disability information. Id.

McLane objected to the EEOC’s request on the grounds that it was overly broad, unduly burdensome, and sought information irrelevant to the underlying charge. Id. at 3. The EEOC responded by issuing a subpoena to McLane demanding the information contained in its initial request. Id. McLane petitioned to revoke the subpoena. Id.

After McLane submitted its petition to revoke, McLane agreed to produce a limited database to the EEOC that contained information on individuals who took the IPCS PCE. Id. The database included information on employees who took the IPCS PCE, including the individuals’ location, gender, job class, test date and other details relating to their test scores, but did not include the individuals’ names, addresses, telephone numbers and social security numbers and medical and disability information. Id. The EEOC subsequently filed an application in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona to enforce its subpoena. Id.

The Court’s Ruling

In ruling on the validity of the EEOC’s administrative subpoena, the Court noted that it must conduct a three-part inquiry, asking: “(1) whether Congress has granted the authority to investigate; (2) whether procedural requirements have been followed; and (3) whether the evidence is relevant and material to the investigation.” Id. at 4. The burden is on the agency to demonstrate that these three prongs are met. Id. If the agency meets all three prongs, the burden shifts to McLane who must show that the subpoena is overbroad or unduly burdensome. Id.

McLane argued that the EEOC failed to meet the first and third prong of the validity inquiry. As to the McLane’s first argument regarding the EEOC’s authority to investigate, the Court noted that the EEOC’s investigative powers arise from a charge of discrimination, whether the charge is filed by or on behalf of a person claiming to be aggrieved, or by a member of the Commission.  Id. Because the EEOC’s authority to investigate arises only from the charge, “courts must be careful not to construe the charge and relevance requirements so broadly as to confer ‘unconstrained investigative authority’ upon the EEOC.” Id. at 5. The Court made clear that the charge referenced in the subpoena defines the scope of the EEOC’s investigatory power. Id.

The Court found that Ochoa’s claim alleging that she suffered gender discrimination because of the administration of the IPCS PCE was within the EEOC’s investigation power. Id. However, Ochoa’s second claim – that she believed the IPCS PCE discriminates on the basis of disability – was not tied to a specific aggrieved party, and thus the EEOC lacked jurisdiction to investigate this claim. Id. The Court reasoned “[t]o ignore the plain language of the statue and to allow the EEOC to investigate a generalized charge of discrimination that is untethered to any aggrieved person would invite the oft-cited ‘fishing expedition’ to become a full-blow harvest operation.” Id. at 6. 

Because Ochoa’s charge was the sole charge listed on the subpoena and Ochoa’s disability discrimination claim was not linked to any aggrieved person, the EEOC only had jurisdiction to investigate Ochoa’s gender discrimination claim. Id. at 7. Thus, the EEOC’s application to enforce the portions of the subpoena that required production of information relating to disability was denied. Id.

Further, the Court considered McLane’s argument that the EEOC’s request for pedigree information for each individual was not relevant to the gender discrimination claim. Id. at 8. The Court agreed with McLane, finding that the EEOC’s request for pedigree information was only relevant to Ochoa’s disability claim. Id. The Court reasoned that the names, contact information and social security numbers of individual employees are not relevant to the gender discrimination claim because “an individuals’ name, or even an interview he or she could provide if contacted, simply could not ‘shed light on’ whether the IPCS PCE represents a tool of gender discrimination in the aggregate.” Id. Accordingly, the Court denied the EEOC’s application to enforce the subpoena’s directive to provide pedigree information. Id. at 9.

Implications For Employers

The ruling in EEOC v. McLane Company, Inc., confirms that the EEOC’s investigative powers are not unlimited and the EEOC does not have unbridled reign to seek any and all information from an employer merely because a charge of discrimination was filed against it. 

Employers that receive requests for information or administrative subpoenas by the EEOC should ensure the requests are not overbroad and that the EEOC is only seeking information relevant to the underlying charge.

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.