HR Minute

An End to Overbroad EEOC Requests for Information or Subpoenas?

Cruise ship viewIt is fairly well-known that federal agencies dealing with employment-related matters have become more aggressive toward employers.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is no different, and one of the tactics that the EEOC has begun using is to demand extensive information from employers even though such information is unrelated to the specific allegations in the charge.  The EEOC’s power to require employers to respond to such broad subpoenas has now been curtailed.  In EEOC v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi) limited the reach of subpoenas issued by the EEOC. 

The plaintiff was a foreign national who worked as a waiter for Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. (RCCL).  Plaintiff was employed on a ship flying the Bahamas flag.  After he told his employer that he had been diagnosed with HIV and Kaposi Sarcoma, RCCL refused to renew his employment contract.  Plaintiff’s physician had declared him fit for duty.

Plaintiff filed a single charge of disability discrimination against RCCL.  In response, RCCL admitted that it did not renew plaintiff’s employment because of his health diagnosis. RCCL then made two arguments.  One, that the ADA was inapplicable to plaintiff as a foreign national working under foreign flag, and two, that RCCL was required to fire plaintiff under the Bahamas Maritime Authority (BMA) medical standards for seafarers.

The EEOC then requested a list of all employees since 2010 whom RCCL had discharged under the BMA medical standards.  RCCL objected that plaintiff was not covered by the ADA and that the requested list was not related to plaintiff’s charge.

An administrative subpoena was the EEOC’s reply.  It demanded the names of all employees since 2009 who had been discharged or whose contracts had not been renewed for a “medical reason.”  The subpoena asked for extensive background, employment, and contact information for each person identified.  But RCCL provided only information on persons who were US citizens.  The EEOC then moved to compel the rest of the information.

The magistrate judge recommended that the subpoena not be enforced because it sought information that was not relevant to plaintiff’s charge and because compliance with the requests would be unduly burdensome.  The district court upheld the magistrate.  The EEOC appealed.

The Eleventh Circuit started its opinion with the statute that the EEOC was entitled to “any evidence of any person being investigated or proceeded against that relates to unlawful employment practices . . . and is relevant to the charge under investigation.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-8(a).  The Court then found that the EEOC’s subpoena was aimed at discovering a potential class of employees or applicants who had suffered a pattern or practice of discrimination, rather than fleshing out the plaintiff’s individual charge.  The court held that it was not clear why company-wide data regarding employees or applicants around the world, with any medical condition, including conditions not covered by the BMA medical standards or similar to plaintiff’s health conditions “would shed light on plaintiff’s individual charge that he was fired because of his HIV and Kaposi Sarcoma diagnoses.”

The EEOC argued that it was entitled to expand its investigation to uncover other potential violations of disability discrimination.  The EEOC stressed that it was asking for “relevant” information about the same “type” of discrimination that plaintiff alleged.  But the court narrowed the EEOC’s vision of relevance.  It held that:

“The relevance that is necessary to support a subpoena for the investigation of an individual charge of discrimination is relevance to the contested issues that must be decided to resolve that charge, not relevance to issues that may be contested when and if future charges are brought by others.  Because RCCL has admitted that the reason it refused to renew plaintiff’s contract is his medical condition, whether it refused to renew other employees’ contracts for the same reason is irrelevant to his charge.”

The Court of Appeals further upheld the lower courts’ finding that compliance with the subpoena would be unduly burdensome on RCCL.  To that end, the lower courts acted properly in weighing the potential ADA jurisdictional hurdles the EEOC faced against the agency on the question of burden.

Finally, the Court noted that if it wanted all the information it was trying to gather in plaintiff’s individual proceeding, the EEOC could file a Commissioner’s charge alleging a pattern or practice of discrimination, but the EEOC could not “enforce a subpoena in the investigation of an individual charge merely as an expedient bypass of the mechanisms required to file a Commissioner’s charge.”

While this case does not curb all of the overreaching actions in which the EEOC has been engaged, it does place some limits on the agency’s power to force employers to respond to overly broad requests for information or subpoenas.  Accordingly, employers who believe that the EEOC has overstepped its bounds in terms of the information it is seeking in its investigation of a charge should consult with legal counsel about how such requests for information can be limited.

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