McLane Co. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,
581 U.S. ___ (2017)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Ochoa worked in a physically demanding job for McLane, which requires new employees in such positions and those returning from medical leave to take a physical evaluation. When Ochoa returned from three months of maternity leave, she failed the evaluation three times and was fired. She filed a sex discrimination charge under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Equal Employment Opportunity (EEOC) began an investigation, but McLane declined its request for names, Social Security numbers, addresses, and telephone numbers of employees asked to take the evaluation. After the EEOC expanded the investigation’s scope, it issued subpoenas under 42 U.S.C. 2000e–9, requesting information relating to its new investigation. The district judge declined to enforce the subpoenas. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the lower court erred in finding the information irrelevant. The Supreme Court vacated. A district court’s decision whether to enforce or quash an EEOC subpoena should be reviewed for abuse of discretion, not de novo. The Court noted “the longstanding practice of the courts of appeals," to review a district court’s decision to enforce or quash an administrative subpoena for abuse of discretion. In most cases, the enforcement decision will turn either on whether the evidence sought is relevant to the specific charge or whether the subpoena is unduly burdensome under the circumstances. Both tasks are well suited to a district judge’s expertise. Deferential review “streamline[s] the litigation process by freeing appellate courts from the duty of reweighing evidence and reconsidering facts already weighed and considered by the district court,” something particularly important in a proceeding designed only to facilitate the EEOC’s investigation. Not every decision touching on the Fourth Amendment is subject to searching review.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

McLANE CO., INC. v. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 15–1248. Argued February 21, 2017—Decided April 3, 2017

Damiana Ochoa worked for eight years in a physically demanding job for petitioner McLane Co., a supply-chain services company. McLane requires employees in those positions—both new employees and those returning from medical leave—to take a physical evaluation. When Ochoa returned from three months of maternity leave, she failed the evaluation three times and was fired. She then filed a sex discrimination charge under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Employment Opportunity (EEOC) began an investigation, but McLane declined its request for so-called “pedigree information”: names, Social Security numbers, addresses, and telephone numbers of employees asked to take the evaluation. After the EEOC expanded the investigation’s scope both geographically (to cover McLane’s national operations) and substantively (to investigate possible age discrimination), it issued subpoenas, as authorized by 42 U. S. C. §2000e–9, requesting pedigree information relating to its new investigation. When McLane refused to provide the information, the EEOC filed two actions in Federal District Court—one arising out of Ochoa’s charge and one arising out of the EEOC’s own age-discrimination charge—seeking enforcement of its subpoenas. The District Judge declined to enforce the subpoenas, finding that the pedigree information was not relevant to the charges, but the Ninth Circuit reversed. Reviewing the District Court’s decision to quash the subpoena de novo, the court concluded that the lower court erred in finding the pedigree information irrelevant.

Held: A district court’s decision whether to enforce or quash an EEOC subpoena should be reviewed for abuse of discretion, not de novo. Pp. 6–12.

(a) Both factors that this Court examines when considering whether such decision should be subject to searching or deferential appellate review point toward abuse-of-discretion review. First, the longstanding practice of the courts of appeals is to review a district court’s decision to enforce or quash an administrative subpoena for abuse of discretion. 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). During the three decades between the NLRA’s enactment and the incorporation of its subpoena-enforcement provisions into Title VII, every Circuit to consider the question had held that a district court’s decision on enforcement of an NLRB subpoena is subject to abuse-of-discretion review. Congress amended Title VII to authorize EEOC subpoenas against this uniform backdrop of deferential appellate review, and today, nearly every Court of Appeals reviews a district court’s decision whether to enforce an EEOC subpoena for abuse of discretion. This “long history of appellate practice,” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U. S. 552 , carries significant persuasive weight.

Second, basic principles of institutional capacity counsel in favor of deferential review. In most cases, the district court’s enforcement decision will turn either on whether the evidence sought is relevant to the specific charge or whether the subpoena is unduly burdensome in light of the circumstances. Both of these tasks are well suited to a district judge’s expertise. The first requires the district court to evaluate the relationship between the particular materials sought and the particular matter under investigation—an analysis “variable in relation to the nature, purposes and scope of the inquiry.” Oklahoma Press Publishing Co. v. Walling, 327 U. S. 186 . And whether a subpoena is overly burdensome turns on the nature of the materials sought and the difficulty the employer will face in producing them—“ ‘fact-intensive, close calls’ ” better suited to resolution by the district court than the court of appeals. Cooter & Gell v. Hartmarx Corp., 496 U. S. 384 .

Other functional considerations also show the appropriateness of abuse-of-discretion review. For one, the district courts’ considerable experience in making similar decisions in other contexts, see Buford v. United States, 532 U. S. 59 , gives them the “institutional advantag[e],” id., at 64, that comes with greater experience. Deferential review also “streamline[s] the litigation process by freeing appellate courts from the duty of reweighing evidence and reconsidering facts already weighed and considered by the district court,” Cooter & Gell, 496 U. S., at 404, something particularly important in a proceeding designed only to facilitate the EEOC’s investigation. Pp. 6–9.

(b) Court-appointed amicus’ arguments in support of de novo review are not persuasive. Amicus claims that the district court’s primary task is to test a subpoena’s legal sufficiency and thus requires no exercise of discretion. But that characterization is not inconsistent with abuse-of-discretion review, which may be employed to insulate the trial judge’s decision from appellate review for the same kind of functional concerns that underpin the Court’s conclusion that abuse of discretion is the appropriate standard.

It is also unlikely that affording deferential review to a district court’s subpoena decision would clash with Court of Appeals decisions that instructed district courts to defer to the EEOC’s determination about the relevance of evidence to the charge at issue. Such decisions are better read as resting on the established rule that the term “relevant” be understood “generously” to permit the EEOC “access to virtually any material that might cast light on the allegations against the employer.” EEOC v. Shell Oil Co., 466 U. S. 54 –69. Nor do the constitutional underpinnings of the Shell Oil standard require a different result. While this Court has described a subpoena as a “ ‘constructive’ search,” Oklahoma Press, 327 U. S., at 202, and implied that the Fourth Amendment is the source of the requirement that a subpoena not be “too indefinite,” United States v. Morton Salt Co., 338 U. S. 632 , not every decision touching on the Fourth Amendment is subject to searching review. See, e.g., United States v. Nixon, 418 U. S. 683 . Cf. Illinois v. Gates, 462 U. S. 213 ; Ornelas v. United States, 517 U. S. 690 , distinguished. Pp. 9–11.

(c) The case is remanded so that the Court of Appeals can review the District Court’s decision under the appropriate standard in the first instance. In doing so, the Court of Appeals may consider, as and to the extent it deems appropriate, any of McLane’s arguments regarding the burdens imposed by the subpoena. Pp. 11–12.

804 F. 3d 1051, vacated and remanded.

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

Primary Holding

The standard of review for a district court's decision on whether to enforce or quash an EEOC subpoena should be abuse of discretion, rather than de novo review.

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