Federal Court Concludes EEOC Subpoena Is Improper Fishing Expedition

May 26, 2011

By: Subhash Viswanathan

The subpoena power of the EEOC is very broad, and entitles the EEOC to obtain information relevant to its investigation of a charge of discrimination. But a federal district court recently concluded that there are limits to that power, and that it does not necessarily entitle EEOC to obtain information about corporate-wide policies or other potential claimants when the information sought will not shed light on the charge it is investigating.

The case arose when the former employee of a nursing home owned by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (“UPMC”) filed a charge of disability discrimination. According to the Court’s opinion, the nursing home responded to the charge by contending the former employee had been discharged pursuant to a policy which provided for a maximum medical leave of 14 weeks. The EEOC then served a subpoena on UPMC, not just the nursing home, demanding production of information on every UPMC employee, not just nursing home employees, terminated pursuant to the policy since July 1, 2008. UPMC has approximately 48,000 employees, the nursing home 170.

EEOC sought the information to investigate a corporate-wide application of the leave policy and to determine if there were other potential ADA claimants. The EEOC’s theory was that application of the policy could deprive employees of additional unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation. UPMC objected to the subpoena and refused to comply, so EEOC sought to enforce the subpoena in court. The Court rejected that effort, concluding that the subpoena was an improper fishing expedition.

In reaching this conclusion, the Court relied on a 2010 decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, EEOC v. Kronos, Inc., which holds that in order to be valid, an EEOC subpoena must seek information relevant to the charge under investigation. The Court noted that although the EEOC need not ignore facts that might be related to other claims of discrimination if it uncovers them during its investigation of a pending charge, the ability to pursue such facts does not give the EEOC “unconstrained investigative authority.” The information it seeks must still be relevant to the charge under investigation, and/or arise out of its investigation of the charge. The Court concluded that neither standard was satisfied in the case before it. The information was not relevant to the charge under investigation because the only reason EEOC wanted it was to conduct a broader investigation of UPMC’s corporate leave policy, and to find other potential claimants. EEOC offered no explanation of how the requested information might shed light on the charge under investigation. And the subpoenaed information did not arise out of the investigation of the charge, because it was clear from the facts that EEOC had not conducted any investigation of the facts related to the charge before issuing the subpoena.