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An administrative agency is authorized to issue subpoena as part of its power to investigate.  Generally, subpoenas are issued to witnesses for collecting evidence, and documents necessary and relevant for the investigation.  When subpoenas are issued, the information sought must be definite and clear.  Thus, a subpoena by an administrative agency should not overbroad the person to whom the subpoena is issued.

There is no set rule for determining whether a particular burden or demand is excessive, reasonable or necessary. The assessment of what is unreasonable and unnecessary depends to a large extent on the reasons or the needs underlying the demand in the subpoena.  If the need or the demand is significant, imposing of substantial burden is justified.  The demand should also be reasonable and shall resolve the question or the dispute.  There should be a balance between the information demanded and the burden that is put on the person to whom the subpoena is issued.  Public interest will be the primary consideration of the courts in maintaining the balance.

What is particularly burdensome depends on the facts and circumstances of each case.  Courts generally modify or exclude parts of a subpoena when the demands are found unduly burdensome or unreasonably broad.[i]  For the court to interfere, the person objecting the subpoena should prove that the demands are unduly burdensome or unreasonably overboard.

An administrative agency has no authority to conduct an unlimited and general investigation solely on discovering violation of law.  There must be authority, relevancy, and some basis for the investigation.  This is more particular in cases of issuance of subpoenas.[ii]  There should be reasonable nexus between the subject matter of investigation and the documents sought for production.

The administrative agency can issue a subpoena requiring a witness to produce documents, papers, writings of any kind, and books necessary for the investigation.  This power is certainly and necessarily limited to a “proper case”.  A “proper case” is one when the documents and books called for are relevant and material to the matter under investigation.[iii]

Therefore, a subpoena to be judicially enforceable should be:[iv]

  • Within the statutory authority of the agency issuing such subpoena;
  • Reasonably specific;
  • Not unduly burdensome; and
  • Reasonably relevant to the matter under investigation.

[i] FTC v. Shaffner, 626 F.2d 32 (7th Cir. Ill. 1980)

[ii]  A’Hearn v. Committee on Unlawful Practice of Law etc., 23 N.Y.2d 916 (N.Y.    1969)

[iii] Carlisle v. Bennett, 268 N.Y. 212 (N.Y. 1935)

[iv]  Iowa City Human Rights Com. v. Roadway Express, Inc., 397 N.W.2d 508   (Iowa 1986)

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