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How to Object to Overly Broad Subpoenas for Personnel Files

How to Object to Overly Broad Subpoenas for Personnel Files

Subpoenas requesting personnel files can often be overly broad and unduly burdensome for employers. When your company receives a subpoena that is too broad, it‘s important to know how to properly object in order to limit the scope of documents you need to produce. This article will walk through the step-by-step process for objecting to overly broad subpoenas for personnel records.

What Makes a Subpoena Overly Broad?

A subpoena can be considered overly broad if it requests “all documents” relating to a general issue or matter without specifying the types of documents sought. Some examples of overly broad requests include:

  • All documents relating to the employment of John Doe
  • The complete personnel file of Jane Doe
  • Any and all records mentioning allegations of harassment in the workplace

These types of broad requests essentially amount to fishing expeditions that attempt to use subpoenas as discovery devices to obtain large swaths of documents. However, subpoenas are meant to request identified, specific evidence – not serve as blank checks for access to a company’s files.

When Can You Object to an Overly Broad Subpoena?

If your company is served with a subpoena requesting personnel files or employment records that you believe is overly broad, you can object in writing to the party who issued the subpoena. Specific grounds for objecting include:

  • Undue Burden: Complying with the subpoena as written would place an excessive burden on the company in terms of time, resources, and money required to gather the requested documents.
  • Lack of Relevance: The requested documents have little or no relevance to the particular legal case or investigation.
  • Privacy Concerns: Fulfilling the subpoena would reveal sensitive personal information about employees unrelated to the matter.
  • Scope Too Broad: The subpoena uses expansive language that goes beyond requesting identifiable evidence related to the specific case issues.
  • Vague and Ambiguous: The requests are vague, ambiguous, or confusing in what documents are being requested.
  • Privileged Information: The subpoena asks for documents protected by attorney-client privilege, work product doctrine, or other privileges.

How to Craft Your Objection

When objecting to an overbroad subpoena, you‘ll want to put together a formal legal objection that clearly lays out the issues with the subpoena and your reasons for objecting. Here are some tips for crafting an effective objection:

  • Be specific. Quote or cite the most problematic language from the subpoena requests and explain exactly why each request is overbroad or unduly burdensome.
  • Suggest a reasonable alternative. Propose a more narrowly tailored request that identifies specific documents and information relevant to the case. Offer to work with the issuing party to modify the requests.
  • Provide estimates of burden. Include specifics on the amount of time, staff, and costs required to comply with the subpoena as written compared to a more reasonable request. Quantify the burden as much as possible.
  • Raise procedural issues. Note any technical defects with the subpoena, such as improper service, lack of witness fees, or short response timeframe.
  • Claim applicable privileges. Identify any materials requested that are subject to attorney-client privilege, work product protection, or other privileges.
  • Attach supporting docs. Include affidavits, time/cost estimates, and privilege logs to back up your claims of undue burden, lack of relevance, privileges, etc.

What Happens After You Object?

After submitting your written objections, the ball is in the other party’s court to either modify or withdraw the subpoena or bring a motion asking the court to compel compliance. Here’s what may happen next:

  • The party withdraws or limits the subpoena to address your concerns. This is the ideal outcome!
  • The party negotiates with you to narrow the scope of the requests and find a middle ground.
  • The party files a motion to compel, which you’ll have a chance to oppose in court filings. The judge will then decide whether to enforce or quash the subpoena.
  • In some cases, the party may simply never respond to your objections. After a reasonable time, the subpoena may be considered withdrawn by default if no court action is taken to compel compliance.

What Are Your Options if a Motion to Compel is Filed?

If the opposing party doesn’t back down and instead files a motion to compel compliance with the subpoena, you’ll need to put together a legal brief opposing the motion. In your opposition brief, be sure to:

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  • Reiterate the key points from your earlier written objections.
  • Respond to the other party’s arguments in favor of the subpoena. Point out any flaws or weaknesses in their reasoning.
  • Provide supporting evidence through affidavits, exhibits, and privilege logs.
  • Note any compromises you offered or attempts to negotiate limits on the subpoena.
  • Request that the court quash or modify the subpoena to address issues of overbreadth, undue burden, lack of relevance, etc.
  • Ask for reimbursement of your costs and attorney’s fees in opposing the motion.

The court will review the motion, your opposition brief, and any replies to decide whether to grant or deny the motion to compel. If the motion is denied, you will not have to produce any additional documents beyond what you offered in proposed compromises. If it is granted, the court may order you to produce certain documents but can also impose reasonable restrictions to protect privileges, privacy, and confidentiality.

Best Practices for Handling Overly Broad Subpoenas

When faced with an overly broad subpoena for personnel files, keep these best practices in mind:

  • Act quickly to assess the subpoena and object in writing before the production deadline. This shows your good faith efforts to comply.
  • Confer with counsel to ensure you have strong legal grounds for your objections. An attorney can help craft the right arguments.
  • Negotiate in good faith to explore limiting the scope of requests before disputing in court.
  • Follow court rules for properly formatting, serving, and filing your objections and opposition briefs.
  • Organize document production to easily add or restrict materials if the court modifies the subpoena.
  • Implement litigation hold to preserve documents that may need to be produced later.
  • Train custodians to spot issues with overbroad requests and consult legal counsel when needed.
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