eLABORate: Eleventh Circuit Denies Enforcement of Overreaching EEOC Subpoena

November 13, 2014

In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., No. 1313519 (11th Cir. Nov. 6, 2014) (per curiam), the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit denied enforcement of a broad EEOC administrative subpoena on the grounds that the subpoena sought information that was not relevant to the individual charge of discrimination and that compliance with the disputed portions of the subpoena would be unduly burdensome to Royal Caribbean.

Case Background

In June 2010, Jose Morabito, an Argentinean national employed by Royal Caribbean as an assistant waiter on one of its cruise ships, filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.  Morabito alleged that Royal Caribbean violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by refusing to renew his employment contract after he was diagnosed with HIV and Kaposi Sarcoma. In a position statement, Royal Caribbean explained that, because its ships are registered under the law of the Bahamas, it was required to follow the Bahamas Maritime Authority (“BMA”) medical standards for seafarers, which allegedly disqualified Morabito from duty at sea.  As such, Royal Caribbean admittedly non-renewed Morabito’s contract because of his medical condition.

The EEOC later issued an administrative subpoena, seeking, among other things, a list of all employees discharged or non-renewed by Royal Caribbean since August 2009 pursuant to BMA medical standards.  Royal Caribbean objected, arguing, in part, that the information sought was not relevant to Morabito’s charge.  The EEOC filed a petition to compel enforcement of the subpoena.  The magistrate judge found that the information sought was irrelevant to Mr. Morabito’s charge and that compliance with the disputed portions of the subpoena would be unduly burdensome.  The district court agreed, and the EEOC appealed.

The Eleventh Circuit’s Holding

At the outset, the Eleventh Circuit recognized the EEOC has the authority to inspect and copy any evidence of any person being investigated or proceeded against that (1) relates to unlawful employment practices and (2) is relevant to the charge under investigation.  Echoing the U.S. Supreme Court, however, the Eleventh Circuit observed that, while often generously interpreted, the EEOC’s investigative authority should not be construed so broadly as to render the relevancy requirement a nullity.

The court quickly concluded that the disputed portions of the EEOC’s subpoena were not intended to flesh out Morabito’s charge, but rather, were aimed at discovering members of a potential class of employees or applicants who suffered from a pattern or practice of discrimination.  According to the court, this was not a case where statistical and comparative data was needed to determine whether an employer’s facially neutral reason for the adverse employment action was pretextual. Royal Caribbean had expressly admitted Morabito was terminated pursuant to BMA medical standards because of his medical condition.  As such, the court found it was not relevant to Morabito’s charge whether Royal Caribbean had discharged or refused to renew other employee’s contracts for a similar reason.

The court further found that, even if the information sought by the EEOC had some tenuous relevance to Morabito’s charge, compliance with the subpoena would still be unduly burdensome to Royal Caribbean.  Royal Caribbean had provided the EEOC with information regarding its corporate structure, hiring and firing practices, the BMA standards, and the circumstances surrounding Morabito’s non-renewal—information which the court believed was relevant to the issues squarely in dispute.  However, the court found that the additional information requested, which pertained to employees and applicants across the globe suffering from any medical condition, would not aid the EEOC in resolving the disputed issues in Morabito’s charge.  Because there was little, if any, need for the requested information to resolve Morabito’s charge, the court found it would be incredibly burdensome for Royal Caribbean employees to manually review paper documents relating to thousands of former employees and applicants.

Finally, in affirming the lower court’s decision not to enforce the administrative subpoena, the Eleventh Circuit made sure to note that the EEOC has at its disposal another mechanism for pursuing information from Royal Caribbean on other potential discrimination victims.  A charge of discrimination may be filed by or on behalf of a person claiming to be aggrieved or by a member of the EEOC.  That is, the EEOC has the ability to file a “Commissioner’s charge” alleging a pattern and practice of discrimination that could support a request for the information sought from Royal Caribbean.  In the court’s opinion, the EEOC may not seek to enforce a subpoena in the investigation of an individual charge as a means for bypassing the procedure required to file a Commissioner’s charge.

Takeaway for Employers

This case demonstrates that, although the EEOC’s administrative subpoena power is broad in scope and often liberally construed, the EEOC still must make some showing that the requested information relates to the subject matter of the individual charge under investigation.  Employers who face EEOC administrative subpoenas should scrutinize, or have their lawyers scrutinize, the requests for relevance to the underlying charge of discrimination, as well as estimate the amount of time and money it will take to respond to the requests.  Employers should also be aware that the denial of enforcement of a subpoena related to an individual charge may not always prevent the EEOC from obtaining the information it seeks, particularly in instances where there may be other potential victims of discrimination.  In those instances, the EEOC can file a Commissioner’s charge that could support broader requests for information.