The Little Battles Matter: Decade-Long Discovery Fight Continues

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12/11/2017

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The Little Battles Matter: Decade-Long Discovery Fight Continues

 By: Rebecca A. Hause-Schultz

Sometimes, the legal battles in the early stages of a case are just as important, time consuming, and costly as the trial itself. This was highlighted by the Ninth Circuit in their decision in the EEOC v. McLane Company, Inc. case decided late last month. In that case, the parties were caught up in a discovery battle that arose out of a 2008 charge filed with the EEOC by former employee Damiana Ochoa. Ochoa claimed that she was discriminated against on the basis of sex when the employer fired her after she failed to pass a “physical capability strength test” after returning to work from maternity leave.

The EEOC issued a subpoena to the employer, seeking the name, social security number, last known address, and telephone number of thousands of employees or prospective employees who also took the physical capability strength test. The employer objected to the subpoena on the basis that it improperly sought the confidential information of its employees. The issue was heard by the District Court, which said that the employer did not have to turn the requested documents over. The case was appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and again to the United States Supreme Court.

The issue answered by the Supreme Court was how the Appellate Court should have reviewed the District Court’s ruling. Specifically, the Supreme Court reviewed whether the Appellate Court could change the District Court’s decision if the District Court applied the wrong law or clearly made a mistake, or whether the Appellate Court could review the matter on its own without considering the District Court’s opinion. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit, stating that the Ninth Circuit made a mistake in reviewing the matter on its own, and told the court to take into account the District Court’s opinion.

The case was again sent to the Ninth Circuit, where the court determined that the Subpoena sought information relevant to the EEOC’s investigation because it could show whether the physical capability strength test was applied differently to men and women. The court said that the EEOC could seek any “relevant” information, which means “any material that might cast light on the allegations against the employer.” The court again sent the issue back to the District Court, instructing it to review the employer’s claim that the subpoena is “unduly burdensome.”

COUNSEL TO MANAGEMENT:

Cases like this demonstrate how important (and time consuming) the discovery process can be. It is through discovery that the parties learn of and gather the evidence, documents and witnesses they will use at trial. Cases are often won or lost based on how successful a party is at such discovery.  Here, the parties are aware of the importance of the information being sought and, as a result, have been in a nearly decade-long fight over it. If you have questions about the handling of an EEOC charge, contact the experts at The Saqui Law Group.

 

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