subpoenaBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Christopher DeGroff, and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit recently held that a district court did not abuse its discretion when it declined to enforce a far-reaching EEOC administrative subpoena relating to one employee’s charge of disability and pregnancy discrimination. The case is important for all employers involved in EEOC investigations.

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Employers facing EEOC litigation are often confronted with requests for information and subpoenas that ask for a substantial amount of personnel information, even if the investigation concerns a single employee’s charge of discrimination.  After the EEOC sought to enforce an administrative subpoena requesting information about a large number of employees of TriCore Reference Laboratories (“TriCore”) over a period of several years, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico declined to enforce subpoena.  Following the EEOC’s appeal – in EEOC v. TriCore Reference Labs., No. 16-2053 (10th Cir. Feb. 27, 2017) – the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, finding the subpoena was overly broad and not relevant to the EEOC’s investigation of a single employee’s charge of discrimination. In the immortal words from the Jerry Seinfeld show, the Tenth Circuit said — “no subpoena for you!”

In anticipation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in EEOC v. McLane Co., Inc., No. 15-1248 (2017), which will likely determine the standard of review for appellate courts considering district court decisions to either quash or enforce EEOC subpoenas (as we blogged about here), this ruling is an excellent victory for employers facing overly broad EEOC subpoenas.  Further, this ruling deals a blow to the EEOC’s aggressive strategy of using far-reaching subpoenas in investigations.

Case Background

In 2011, Kellie Guadiana began working at the Albuquerque, New Mexico location of TriCore as a phlebotomist.  Id. at 4.  In November 2011, Guadiana requested accommodations to her work schedule and responsibilities due to her rheumatoid arthritis, which she asserted was exacerbated by her pregnancy.  After reviewing the doctors’ notes that Guadiana submitted in support of her requests, TriCore determined that she could not safely perform the essential functions of her position. TriCore offered Guadiana the opportunity to apply to other positions within the company for which she was qualified and whose essential functions she could perform.  On May 5, 2012, after Guadiana did not apply to a new position, TriCore terminated her employment.  One month later, Guadiana filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC alleging that TriCore had discriminated against her due to her disability (rheumatoid arthritis) and sex (pregnancy).  Id. at 5.  In response, TriCore said it provided Guadiana a reasonable accommodation by offering her the chance to apply for other positions.

Based on evidence uncovered during the EEOC’s investigation of the underlying charge, the EEOC informed TriCore that the scope of its investigation was expanded to include a “[f]ailure to accommodate persons with disabilities and/or failure to accommodate women with disabilities (due to pregnancy).”  Id. at 6.  As part of its expanded investigation, the EEOC sent TriCore a letter requesting: (1) a complete list of TriCore employees who had requested an accommodation for disability, along with their personal identifying information; and (2) a complete list of TriCore employees who had been pregnant while employed at TriCore, including the employees’ personal identifying information and whether they sought or were granted any accommodations. The EEOC sought that information for a four-year time frame.  TriCore refused to comply, contending the EEOC did not have an actionable claim of discrimination.  On February 23, 2015, the EEOC submitted another letter seeking the same information but limited to a three-year time frame.  After TriCore again refused to comply, the EEOC subpoenaed the information it had sought in its letter.  TriCore petitioned the EEOC to revoke the subpoena, arguing it was unduly burdensome and a “fishing expedition.”  Id. at 7.  The EEOC denied TriCore’s petition.

After TriCore refused to comply with the EEOC’s subpoena, the EEOC submitted an application to the district court requesting an order to show cause why the subpoena should not be enforced.  TriCore responded by arguing the information requested was not relevant to Guadiana’s charge.  The district court viewed the question as a “close call,” but ultimately denied the EEOC’s application, noting that the “EEOC’s real intent in requesting this [information was], in fact, difficult to pin down.”   Id. at 8.  The district court noted that to the extent the subpoena sought evidence to show TriCore had a pattern or practice of discrimination, Tenth Circuit case law did not support such a request.  Further, to the extent the subpoena sought evidence to compare Guadiana with other TriCore employees, the pregnancy request would not provide evidence of relevant comparators.  The EEOC appealed the denial of its application to enforce the subpoena.

The Decision

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of the EEOC’s application to enforce its subpoena.  As an initial matter, the Tenth Circuit explained that to show subpoenaed information is relevant, the EEOC must show that it has a realistic expectation that the information requested will advance its investigation, and must further establish the link between its investigatory power and the charges of discrimination. On appeal, the EEOC argued that the district court erred in not enforcing: (1) the disability request, which was relevant to investigate whether TriCore had a policy of discrimination (i.e., pattern-or-practice evidence), and (2) the pregnancy request, which was relevant to investigate whether TriCore treated Guadiana less favorably than similarly situated employees (i.e., comparator evidence).  Id. at 9.

First, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in determining that the EEOC had not satisfied its burden to justify its expanded investigation, noting “[t]he EEOC has not alleged anything to suggest a pattern or practice of discrimination beyond TriCore’s failure to reassign Ms. Guadiana.”  Id. at 15.  Second, the EEOC argued that the district court erred in denying the comparator-evidence pregnancy request.  The Tenth Circuit initially noted that the EEOC limited its comparator-evidence argument exclusively to the pregnancy request.  While the Tenth Circuit disagreed with the district court and found that the pregnancy request may uncover information that is potentially relevant to Guadiana’s charge, it nonetheless held that the EEOC did not present these relevance arguments in district court and therefore failed to meet its burden of explaining how the pregnancy request would offer information relevant to Guadiana’s charge.  Finally, the Tenth Circuit noted that even if the EEOC provided such an explanation regarding relevancy, its request was nonetheless overbroad because it sought information having no apparent connection to Guadiana’s charge, such as information about pregnant employees who never sought an accommodation.  Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of the EEOC’s request to enforce the subpoena.

Implications For Employers

For employers, responding to requests for information and subpoenas in EEOC litigation can be time-consuming and expensive.  Employers confronted with EEOC subpoenas that request a disproportionate amount of personnel information in relation to a single employee’s charge of discrimination can use this ruling to support arguments that such overly broad subpoenas should not be enforced.  Nonetheless, with the issue percolating before the U.S. Supreme Court, employers will continue to have to fight EEOC subpoenas at the investigation stage until the Supreme Court provides further clarity regarding the scope of this often abusive tactic.

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