By Christopher DeGroff, Paul Kehoe and Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Employers have become accustomed to the federal courts rubber stamping EEOC subpoenas seeking company-wide information based on a single charge of discrimination. In light of the EEOC’s systemic focus — and the agency’s desire to transform single allegations into a blockbuster systemic actions — aggressive and extensive EEOC subpoenas requests are more and more prevalent, with very little case law authority to cabin the EEOC’s authority. The Court in EEOC v. Forge Industrial Staffing Inc., No. 14-MC-90 (S. D. Ind. Nov. 24, 2014), however, had enough of the EEOC’s strong-arm tactics. In rejecting the Commission’s broad subpoena, Magistrate Judge Mark Dinsmore authored an opinion that provides employers with ammunition to fight “everything and the kitchen sink…” subpoena requests.

Factual Background

In EEOC v. Forge Industrial Staffing Inc., a former employee filed an EEOC charge four months after her termination alleging sexual harassment and retaliation. The Commission sought extensive information from the company as part of its administrative investigation. In its subpoena, the EEOC requested all employment applications for roughly a two and a half year period because the applications purportedly required employees to agree to file all employment-related claims within six months of the event, except as prohibited by law. The EEOC views this provision as an impermissible waiver of an applicant’s statutory rights. The company argued that the requested information was irrelevant to the charge and complying with it would be unduly burdensome.

The Court’s Decision

At the hearing, the EEOC argued that the application waiver related to the “overall conditions of the workplace.” Id. at 5. The Court rejected the EEOC’s position for several reasons. First, the charge did not contain pattern or practice allegations – claims that would suggest a pervasive violation of the law. Second, the charging party filed the charge within four months of the termination, meaning the clause had no impact on her willingness to file a charge. As a result, the waiver could not be relevant to the charge under investigation. The Court recognized that accepting the “overall condition of the workplace” argument would eviscerate the meaning of “relevance” because it would allow the EEOC to subpoena any information about a company at the EEOC’s whim. Id. at 5-6.

Finally, the Court rejected the EEOC’s standard argument that it has a broad mandate to promote the public interest, and therefore, can seek to remedy violations not alleged in a charge. Based on a plain reading of Title VII, which requires relevance to the charge under investigation, the Court reasoned that the EEOC could not expand a single charge into a pattern or practice case with wholly different allegations. The Court noted that the plain language of the statute does not permit an investigation into an violation not alleged in the charge.

Implications For Employers

The ruling in EEOC v. Forge Industrial Staffing Inc. marks the second time in a month that courts have limited the EEOC’s subpoena enforcement authority (see our blog posting here on the recent Eleventh Circuit’s defense ruling on an EEOC subpoena). Although many federal courts continue to grant the EEOC significant deference in subpoena matters, these recent decisions provide a glimmer of hope. Just because the EEOC says information is relevant does not make it so. When confronted with an expanded investigation based on a single charge, without pattern or practice allegations, there is a solid, common sense argument for employers to challenge the subpoena on both relevance and timeliness grounds. Employers should be aware of this and other recent decisions limiting the EEOC’s subpoena authority.

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