Administrative Subpoenas: Scope, Authority, and Compliance

Explore the scope, authority, and compliance requirements of administrative subpoenas in this comprehensive guide, detailing their legal framework, practical applications, and recipient obligations.

Administrative subpoenas are powerful tools used by various government agencies to gather information and enforce regulatory compliance. This comprehensive guide explores the scope, authority, and compliance requirements associated with administrative subpoenas. It aims to provide a detailed understanding of their legal framework, practical applications, and the obligations they impose on recipients.


Administrative subpoenas are distinct from judicial subpoenas in that they are issued by government agencies rather than courts. They play a crucial role in regulatory enforcement, allowing agencies to obtain documents, testimony, and other information necessary for investigations and oversight.

Scope of Administrative Subpoenas

Definition and Purpose

An administrative subpoena is a legal instrument used by government agencies to compel the production of documents, records, or testimony relevant to an investigation or regulatory oversight. These subpoenas are typically issued without prior judicial approval, although they are subject to judicial review if challenged.

The authority to issue administrative subpoenas is derived from various statutes and regulations. Key legal provisions include:

  • Administrative Procedure Act (APA): The APA provides a general framework for administrative procedures, including the issuance of subpoenas. 5 U.S.C. § 555
  • Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act): Under the OSH Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has the authority to issue subpoenas for workplace safety investigations. 29 U.S.C. § 657
  • Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA): The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can issue subpoenas to enforce environmental regulations. 42 U.S.C. § 9604(e)

Types of Administrative Subpoenas

Administrative subpoenas can be categorized based on their purpose and the type of information sought:

  • Investigative Subpoenas: Used to gather evidence during investigations.
  • Compliance Subpoenas: Issued to ensure compliance with regulatory requirements.
  • Inspection Subpoenas: Allow agencies to inspect premises or records.

Authority to Issue Administrative Subpoenas

Federal Agencies

Several federal agencies have the authority to issue administrative subpoenas, including:

State Agencies

State agencies also have the authority to issue administrative subpoenas under state laws. For example:

  • California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH): Issues subpoenas to investigate discrimination complaints.
  • New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS): Uses subpoenas to regulate financial institutions.

Compliance with Administrative Subpoenas

Obligations of Recipients

Recipients of administrative subpoenas are legally obligated to comply. This includes:

  • Producing Documents: Providing requested documents or records.
  • Testifying: Appearing for testimony if required.
  • Allowing Inspections: Permitting agency representatives to inspect premises or records.

Grounds for Challenging Subpoenas

While compliance is mandatory, recipients can challenge administrative subpoenas on certain grounds:

  • Relevance: Arguing that the requested information is not relevant to the investigation.
  • Burden: Claiming that compliance would impose an undue burden.
  • Privilege: Asserting legal privileges, such as attorney-client privilege.

Judicial Review

If a recipient challenges an administrative subpoena, the matter may be brought before a court for judicial review. The court will assess the validity of the subpoena based on factors such as relevance, scope, and burden.

Enforcement of Administrative Subpoenas

Agency Enforcement Actions

Agencies have various mechanisms to enforce compliance with administrative subpoenas:

  • Civil Penalties: Imposing fines for non-compliance.
  • Court Orders: Seeking court orders to compel compliance.
  • Contempt Proceedings: Initiating contempt proceedings against non-compliant parties.

Case Law Examples

Several court cases illustrate the enforcement of administrative subpoenas:

  • United States v. Morton Salt Co.: The Supreme Court upheld the FTC's authority to issue subpoenas, emphasizing the broad investigatory powers of administrative agencies. 338 U.S. 632 (1950)
  • Reyes v. United States: The Ninth Circuit affirmed the enforceability of IRS administrative subpoenas, highlighting the limited grounds for challenging such subpoenas. 954 F.2d 1453 (9th Cir. 1992)

Privacy and Confidentiality Concerns

Protection of Sensitive Information

Administrative subpoenas often involve the disclosure of sensitive information. Agencies must balance the need for information with privacy and confidentiality concerns. Key protections include:

  • Privacy Act: Governs the collection, use, and dissemination of personal information by federal agencies. 5 U.S.C. § 552a
  • Confidential Business Information (CBI): Agencies must protect CBI from unauthorized disclosure.

Privacy Impact Assessments

Agencies conduct Privacy Impact Assessments (PIAs) to evaluate the impact of their information collection activities on privacy. For example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) conducts PIAs for its subpoena systems. DHS Privacy Impact Assessment


Administrative subpoenas are essential tools for government agencies to enforce regulations and conduct investigations. Understanding their scope, authority, and compliance requirements is crucial for both agencies and recipients. By adhering to legal standards and protecting privacy, agencies can effectively use administrative subpoenas while safeguarding individual rights.


  1. Administrative Procedure Act (5 U.S.C. § 555)
  2. Occupational Safety and Health Act (29 U.S.C. § 657)
  3. Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (42 U.S.C. § 9604(e))
  4. Report to Congress on the Use of Administrative Subpoena
  5. FTC Investigative Authority
  6. DOL Enforcement
  7. United States v. Morton Salt Co.
  8. Reyes v. United States
  9. Privacy Act (5 U.S.C. § 552a)
  10. DHS Privacy Impact Assessment

This guide aims to provide a thorough understanding of administrative subpoenas, their legal framework, and practical considerations for compliance. By adhering to these principles, agencies can effectively utilize administrative subpoenas while respecting legal and privacy standards.

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