The United States Supreme Court recently resolved a Circuit Court split on the appropriate standard of review of a District Court’s decision whether to enforce a subpoena issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). In McLane Co., Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, No. 15-1248, 581 U.S. __ (April 3, 2017), the Court held that such a decision should be reviewed only to determine whether the District Court abused its discretion – a deferential standard of review. This conclusion was fairly uncontroversial. Indeed, the abuse of discretion standard has long been used for review of decisions whether to enforce administrative subpoenas (such as those issued by the National Labor Relations Board). Historically, however, the Ninth Circuit alone has used a de novo standard of review in these circumstances, while the seven other U.S. Courts of Appeal to have addressed this issue all applied the more deferential standard. The Ninth Circuit panel itself questioned why de novo review applied, in light of the substantial authority to the contrary, and the Supreme Court took the case to resolve this circuit split.
It is commonplace in employment litigation to learn that a charge by a single employee of a discrete violation of law has become the basis for broad and far reaching requests for information and documents or that the EEOC has filed a complaint for hundreds of employees it has not even considered in its investigation or in its attempts at statutory conciliation.
When an employer faces litigation following an unfavorable cause determination by the EEOC, it may seek to depose the EEOC investigator who made the finding. However, the scope of discovery obtainable from the EEOC is somewhat different from that available from a non-governmental third party. The EEOC may seek to quash a subpoena by asserting that the information sought is protected by the deliberative process privilege, which is available to the agency in addition to the more common protections of attorney-client privilege and work product protection.
In Mohawk Industries, Inc. v. Carpenter, the Supreme Court resolved a circuit split and held that an order requiring the disclosure of documents arguably protected by the attorney-client privilege does not qualify for immediate appeal under the “collateral order doctrine.” The collateral order doctrine allows litigants to appeal a small class of orders that (1) conclusively determine a disputed question; (2) resolve an important issue completely separate from the merits of the action; and (3) are effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment. Orders that do not fit within these parameters can be challenged only after a final judgment is rendered in the case or by other procedural means.