15 Sep 23

Challenging Vague or Ambiguous Federal Subpoena Requests

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Last Updated on: 17th September 2023, 11:43 pm

Challenging Overly Broad or Vague Federal Subpoenas: A Guide for Recipients

Receiving a federal subpoena can be intimidating for any individual or organization. However, recipients have legal rights to challenge subpoenas that contain overly broad, vague, or unduly burdensome requests. This article provides practical tips for recipients on challenging problematic federal subpoenas.

What is a Federal Subpoena?

A federal subpoena is a legal demand issued by a federal court, government agency, or federal grand jury seeking documents, testimony, or tangible items relevant to an investigation or legal proceeding. As explained in the Department of Justice’s Civil Resource Manual, federal subpoenas are governed by Rule 45 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. There are two main types – subpoenas to testify and subpoenas requesting documents or electronically stored information (“subpoenas duces tecum”). This article focuses on strategies for challenging subpoenas duces tecum.

Grounds for Challenging a Federal Subpoena

Under Rule 45, recipients can challenge subpoenas on several grounds, including if the subpoena:

  • Fails to allow reasonable time for compliance
  • Requires excessive travel to comply
  • Seeks privileged or protected information
  • Is overly broad, vague, or ambiguous
  • Imposes an undue burden

This article examines common bases for challenging federal subpoenas as vague, overbroad, or unduly burdensome.

Challenging Vague or Ambiguous Subpoena Requests

One frequent argument for quashing a federal subpoena is that the requests are vague or ambiguous. As stated in Rule 45(d)(1)(B), recipients can object to unclear or confusing subpoena requests. For example, in EEOC v. Randstad, Randstad challenged an EEOC subpoena as vague for not specifying terms like “related to” and “concerning.”

Factors making a subpoena request vague or ambiguous include:

  • Undefined terms or phrases
  • No time frame specified
  • No custodians or data sources identified
  • Broad “any and all documents” language

To challenge a subpoena as vague or ambiguous, recipients can file a motion to quash or modify the subpoena, identifying the problematic language. Proposing alternative phrasing can demonstrate reasonableness.

Challenging Overly Broad Subpoena Requests

Recipients can also argue a federal subpoena is overbroad and seeks non-relevant information beyond the scope of the matter. Under the Federal Rules, subpoenas should only request information “relevant to any party’s claim or defense.”

Factors making a subpoena overbroad include:

  • No reasonable time limitations
  • Requests not focused on key players
  • Seeking information unrelated to the case

As explained in The Sedona Conference Journal, recipients should clearly explain why the requests are overbroad and propose a reasonable scope.

Challenging Unduly Burdensome Subpoena Requests

Under Rule 45, subpoenas that impose an undue burden should be quashed or modified. The recipient must show compliance would be unreasonably burdensome. Courts weigh factors like breadth and relevance against burden in deciding whether to quash.

To demonstrate undue burden, the recipient can provide specifics on:

  • Number of documents or data requested
  • Custodians involved
  • Estimated compliance costs
  • Business disruption

Quantifying the burden with affidavits or cost estimates can help support an undue burden argument.

Strategies for Challenging Federal Subpoenas

When challenging an improper federal subpoena, key strategies include:

  • Acting quickly to object within the compliance timeframe
  • Conferring with the issuing party to discuss objections
  • Clearly explaining the problematic requests
  • Suggesting reasonable modifications
  • Providing evidence like cost estimates to show burden

With a focused, well-supported challenge, recipients often succeed in modifying or quashing burdensome federal subpoenas.

Given the high legal stakes, consulting an attorney is advisable when challenging federal subpoenas. Experienced counsel can help craft persuasive arguments and navigate the legal process. Don’t let an improper federal subpoena go unchallenged.


Department of Justice – Civil Resource Manual on Quashing or Modifying Subpoenas

EEOC v. Randstad – Opinion Quashing EEOC Subpoena

The Sedona Conference Journal – Overview of Subpoena Challenges

Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 45 – Subpoenas