The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has broad authority to investigate allegations of employment discrimination. But there are limits to that authority, as illustrated by a recent Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision affirming the district court’s denial of the EEOC’s application to enforce an administrative subpoena that would have expanded its investigation of a single EEOC charge.

In EEOC v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. (11th Cir., November 6, 2014), Jose Morabito, a former assistant waiter on one of RCCL’s cruise ships, alleged that RCCL fired him in 2010 in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) because he had been diagnosed with HIV and Kaposi Sarcoma, even though his physician had declared him fit for duty. RCCL admitted discharging Morabito because of his medical condition, but contended that because RCCL’s ships are registered under the law of the Bahamas, RCCL was required to follow the Bahamas Maritime Authority (“BMA”) medical standards for seafarers, which disqualified Morabito from duty at sea.

During its investigation, the EEOC requested a list of all employees discharged by RCCL since 2010 pursuant to the BMA medical standards. RCCL objected, asserting that the ADA did not cover foreign nationals working on foreign-flagged ships and that the information sought was irrelevant to Morabito’s charge. The EEOC then issued an administrative subpoena that demanded a list of all employees who were not hired, who were discharged, or whose contracts were not renewed, from August 25, 2009 through the present because of a medical condition. RCCL partially complied by providing records for employees or applicants who were U.S. citizens, and the EEOC sought to compel enforcement of the subpoena for the remaining records.  The district court denied the application on the grounds that the information sought was not relevant to Morabito’s charge and that compliance would be unduly burdensome.

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. Noting the EEOC’s broad authority to investigate alleged discrimination, the court nevertheless ruled that the EEOC’s subpoena went too far. “It is not immediately clear,” the court wrote, “why company-wide data regarding employees and applicants around the world with any medical condition, including conditions not specifically covered by the BMA medical standards or similar to Mr. Morabito’s, would shed light on Mr. Morabito’s individual charge that he was fired because of his HIV and Kaposi Sarcoma diagnoses.” The court went on to reject the EEOC’s argument that the EEOC is entitled to expand its investigation to uncover other potential violations and victims of discrimination on the basis of disability. “The relevance that is necessary to support a subpoena for the investigation of an individual charge,” the court held, “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.”

Normally an employer is well-advised to cooperate fully during an EEOC investigation. But a red flag should go up when the EEOC wants to expand its investigation beyond the charge at issue. In such cases, an employer may want to consider resisting the EEOC’s requests and asking a federal court to rein in the EEOC. An “expanded” EEOC investigation is the last thing most employers need.