McLane Co. v. Equal Emp't Opportunity Comm'n

Decision Date03 April 2017
Docket NumberNo. 15–1248.,15–1248.
Citation197 L.Ed.2d 500,137 S.Ct. 1159
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Allyson N. Ho, Dallas, TX, for Petitioner.

Rachel P. Kovner, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Stephen B. Kinnaird, appointed by this Court, as amicus curiae.

P. David Lopez, General Counsel, Jennifer S. Goldstein, Associate General Counsel, Margo Pave, Assistant General Counsel, James M. Tucker, Attorney, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Washington, DC, Ian Heath Gershengorn, Acting Solicitor General, James L. Lee, Deputy General Counsel, Irving L. Gornstein, Counselor to the Solicitor General, Rachel P. Kovner, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Noel J. Francisco, Acting Solicitor General, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Andrew M. Jacobs, Snell & Wilmer LLP, Tucson, AZ, William R. Peterson, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, Houston, TX, Allyson N. Ho, Ronald E. Manthey, John C. Sullivan, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, Dallas, TX, for Petitioner.

Justice SOTOMAYOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 permits the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to issue a subpoena to obtain evidence from an employer that is relevant to a pending investigation. The statute authorizes a district court to issue an order enforcing such a subpoena. The question presented here is whether a court of appeals should review a district court's decision to enforce or quash an EEOC subpoena de novo or for abuse of discretion. This decision should be reviewed for abuse of discretion.


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of "race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." § 703(a), 78 Stat. 255, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e–2(a). The statute entrusts the enforcement of that prohibition to the EEOC. See § 2000e–5(a) ; EEOC v. Shell Oil Co., 466 U.S. 54, 61–62, 104 S.Ct. 1621, 80 L.Ed.2d 41 (1984). The EEOC's responsibilities "are triggered by the filing of a specific sworn charge of discrimination," University of Pa. v. EEOC, 493 U.S. 182, 190, 110 S.Ct. 577, 107 L.Ed.2d 571 (1990), which can be filed either by the person alleging discrimination or by the EEOC itself, see § 2000e–5(b). When it receives a charge, the EEOC must first notify the employer, ibid., and must then investigate "to determine whether there is reasonable cause to believe that the charge is true," University of Pa., 493 U.S., at 190, 110 S.Ct. 577 (internal quotation marks omitted).

This case is about one of the tools the EEOC has at its disposal in conducting its investigation: a subpoena. In order "[t]o enable the [EEOC] to make informed decisions at each stage of the enforcement process," Title VII "confers a broad right of access to relevant evidence." Id., at 191, 110 S.Ct. 577. It provides that the EEOC "shall ... have access to, for the purposes of examination, ... any evidence of any person being investigated or proceeded against that relates to unlawful employment practices covered by" Title VII and "is relevant to the charge under investigation." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e–8(a). And the statute enables the EEOC to obtain that evidence by "authoriz[ing] [it] to issue a subpoena and to seek an order enforcing [the subpoena]." University of Pa., 493 U.S., at 191, 110 S.Ct. 577 ; see § 2000e–9.1 Under that authority, the EEOC may issue "subp [o]enas requiring the attendance and testimony of witnesses or the production of any evidence." 29 U.S.C. § 161(1). An employer may petition the EEOC to revoke the subpoena, see ibid., but if the EEOC rejects the petition and the employer still "refuse[s] to obey [the] subp[o]ena," the EEOC may ask a district court to issue an order enforcing it, see § 161(2).

A district court's role in an EEOC subpoena enforcement proceeding, we have twice explained, is a straightforward one. See University of Pa., 493 U.S., at 191, 110 S.Ct. 577 ; Shell Oil, 466 U.S., at 72, n. 26, 104 S.Ct. 1621. A district court is not to use an enforcement proceeding as an opportunity to test the strength of the underlying complaint. Ibid. Rather, a district court should " ‘satisfy itself that the charge is valid and that the material requested is "relevant" to the charge.’ " University of Pa., 493 U.S., at 191, 110 S.Ct. 577. It should do so cognizant of the "generou[s]" construction that courts have given the term "relevant." Shell Oil, 466 U.S., at 68–69, 104 S.Ct. 1621 ("virtually any material that might cast light on the allegations against the employer"). If the charge is proper and the material requested is relevant, the district court should enforce the subpoena unless the employer establishes that the subpoena is "too indefinite," has been issued for an "illegitimate purpose," or is unduly burdensome. Id., at 72, n. 26, 104 S.Ct. 1621. See United States v. Morton Salt Co., 338 U.S. 632, 652–653, 70 S.Ct. 357, 94 L.Ed. 401 (1950) ( "The gist of the protection is in the requirement ... that the disclosure sought shall not be unreasonable" (internal quotation marks omitted)).


This case arises out of a Title VII suit filed by a woman named Damiana Ochoa. Ochoa worked for eight years as a "cigarette selector" for petitioner McLane Co., a supply-chain services company. According to McLane, the job is a demanding one: Cigarette selectors work in distribution centers, where they are required to lift, pack, and move large bins containing products. McLane requires employees taking physically demanding jobs—both new employees and employees returning from medical leave—to take a physical evaluation. According to McLane, the evaluation "tests ... range of motion, resistance, and speed" and "is designed, administered, and validated by a third party." Brief for Petitioner 6. In 2007, Ochoa took three months of maternity leave. When she attempted to return to work, McLane asked her to take the evaluation. Ochoa attempted to pass the evaluation three times, but failed. McLane fired her.

Ochoa filed a charge of discrimination, alleging (among other things) that she had been fired on the basis of her gender. The EEOC began an investigation, and—at its request—McLane provided it with basic information about the evaluation, as well as a list of anonymous employees that McLane had asked to take the evaluation. McLane's list included each employee's gender, role at the company, and evaluation score, as well as the reason each employee had been asked to take the evaluation. But the company refused to provide what the parties call "pedigree information": the names, Social Security numbers, last known addresses, and telephone numbers of the employees who had been asked to take the evaluation. Upon learning that McLane used the evaluation nationwide, the EEOC expanded the scope of its investigation, both geographically (to focus on McLane's nationwide operations) and substantively (to investigate whether McLane had discriminated against its employees on the basis of age). It issued subpoenas requesting pedigree information as it related to its new investigation. But McLane refused to provide the pedigree information, and so the EEOC filed two actions in Federal District Court—one arising out of Ochoa's charge and one arising out of a separate age-discrimination charge the EEOC itself had filed—seeking enforcement of its subpoenas.

The enforcement actions were assigned to the same District Judge, who, after a hearing, declined to enforce the subpoenas to the extent that they sought the pedigree information. See EEOC v. McLane Co., 2012 WL 1132758, *5 (D.Ariz., Apr. 4, 2012) (age discrimination charge); Civ. No. 12–2469, 2012 WL 5868959 (D Ariz., Nov. 19, 2012), App. to Pet. for Cert. 28–30 (Title VII charge).2 In the District Court's view, the pedigree information was not "relevant" to the charges because " ‘an individual's name, or even an interview he or she could provide if contacted, simply could not shed light on whether the [evaluation] represents a tool of ... discrimination.’ " App. to Pet. for Cert. 29 (quoting 2012 WL 1132758, at *5 ; some internal quotation marks omitted).

The Ninth Circuit reversed. See 804 F.3d 1051 (2015). Consistent with Circuit precedent, the panel reviewed the District Court's decision to quash the subpoena de novo, and concluded that the District Court had erred in finding the pedigree information irrelevant. Id., at 1057. But the panel questioned in a footnote why de novo review applied, observing that its sister Circuits "appear[ed] to review issues related to enforcement of administrative subpoenas for abuse of discretion." Id., at 1056, n. 3 ; see infra, at 1167 (reviewing Court of Appeals authority).

This Court granted certiorari to resolve the disagreement between the Courts of Appeals over the appropriate standard of review for the decision whether to enforce an EEOC subpoena. 579 U.S. ––––, 137 S.Ct. 30, 195 L.Ed.2d 902 (2016). Because the United States agrees with McLane that such a decision should be reviewed for abuse of discretion, Stephen B. Kinnaird was appointed as amicus curiae to defend the judgment below. 580 U.S. ––––, 137 S.Ct. 461, 196 L.Ed.2d 339 (2016). He has ably discharged his duties.


When considering whether a district court's decision should be subject to searching or deferential appellate review—at least absent "explicit statutory command"we traditionally look to two factors. Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 558, 108 S.Ct. 2541, 101 L.Ed.2d 490 (1988). First, we ask whether the "history of appellate practice" yields an answer. Ibid. Second, at least where "neither a clear statutory prescription nor a historical tradition exists," we ask whether, " ‘as a matter of the sound administration of justice, one judicial actor is better positioned than another to decide the issue in question.’ " Id., at 558, 559–560, 108 S.Ct. 2541 (quoting Miller v. Fenton, 474 U.S. 104, 114, 106 S.Ct....

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