What is a subpoena?

A subpoena is a court order. A subpoena could be issued to force an unwilling witness to testify, to make a party produce evidence, or to make an uncooperative person attend a deposition.

What is the legal basis for a subpoena?

In the Federal courts, subpoena practice is governed by Rule 45 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (the rules that govern Federal litigation). Oftentimes, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are supplemented by Local Rules of Civil Procedure (rules specific to whichever court you are in).

In English, you say? I’ll try.

When you sue someone, there are only certain courts that you can do it in. For instance, you cannot sue someone for punching you in the face while you were in vacation in Michigan in the California State Court if you live in Connecticut and the person who hit you lives in Delaware. Along those lines, there are certain things that can only be heard in Federal Court (and things that can only be heard in State Court!).

Okay, I follow you so far.

Great. Now the hard part is out of the way.

Every Court has rules about how it operates. The whole reason we have laws in the first place is so that we can resolve things fairly by treating everyone the same. Enter rules of procedure.

What are procedural rules?

Procedural rules are “miniature laws” about how the Court has to do things. If every judge just did whatever he/she wanted, that would be bad. The rules of procedure tell judges (and lawyers) exactly how they need to go about things.

Great. So what are the requirements for a subpoena?

I’m glad you asked. I’m going to break it down below, but just for reference, here’s the text of Rule 45:

(a) In General.

(1) Form and Contents.

(A) Requirements—In General. Every subpoena must:

(i) state the court from which it issued;

(ii) state the title of the action and its civil-action number;

(iii) command each person to whom it is directed to do the following at a specified time and place: attend and testify; produce designated documents, electronically stored information, or tangible things in that person’s possession, custody, or control; or permit the inspection of premises; and

(iv) set out the text of Rule 45(d) and (e).

(B) Command to Attend a Deposition—Notice of the Recording Method. A subpoena commanding attendance at a deposition must state the method for recording the testimony.

(C) Combining or Separating a Command to Produce or to Permit Inspection; Specifying the Form for Electronically Stored Information. A command to produce documents, electronically stored information, or tangible things or to permit the inspection of premises may be included in a subpoena commanding attendance at a deposition, hearing, or trial, or may be set out in a separate subpoena. A subpoena may specify the form or forms in which electronically stored information is to be produced.

(D) Command to Produce; Included Obligations. A command in a subpoena to produce documents, electronically stored information, or tangible things requires the responding person to permit inspection, copying, testing, or sampling of the materials.

(2) Issuing Court. A subpoena must issue from the court where the action is pending.

(3) Issued by Whom. The clerk must issue a subpoena, signed but otherwise in blank, to a party who requests it. That party must complete it before service. An attorney also may issue and sign a subpoena if the attorney is authorized to practice in the issuing court.

(4) Notice to Other Parties Before Service. If the subpoena commands the production of documents, electronically stored information, or tangible things or the inspection of premises before trial, then before it is served on the person to whom it is directed, a notice and a copy of the subpoena must be served on each party.

(b) Service.

(1) By Whom and How; Tendering Fees. Any person who is at least 18 years old and not a party may serve a subpoena. Serving a subpoena requires delivering a copy to the named person and, if the subpoena requires that person’s attendance, tendering the fees for 1 day’s attendance and the mileage allowed by law. Fees and mileage need not be tendered when the subpoena issues on behalf of the United States or any of its officers or agencies.

(2) Service in the United States. A subpoena may be served at any place within the United States.

(3) Service in a Foreign Country. 28 U.S.C. §1783 governs issuing and serving a subpoena directed to a United States national or resident who is in a foreign country.

(4) Proof of Service. Proving service, when necessary, requires filing with the issuing court a statement showing the date and manner of service and the names of the persons served. The statement must be certified by the server.

(c) Place of Compliance.

(1) For a Trial, Hearing, or Deposition. A subpoena may command a person to attend a trial, hearing, or deposition only as follows:

(A) within 100 miles of where the person resides, is employed, or regularly transacts business in person; or

(B) within the state where the person resides, is employed, or regularly transacts business in person, if the person

(i) is a party or a party’s officer; or

(ii) is commanded to attend a trial and would not incur substantial expense.

(2) For Other Discovery. A subpoena may command:

(A) production of documents, electronically stored information, or tangible things at a place within 100 miles of where the person resides, is employed, or regularly transacts business in person; and

(B) inspection of premises at the premises to be inspected.

(d) Protecting a Person Subject to a Subpoena; Enforcement.

(1) Avoiding Undue Burden or Expense; Sanctions. A party or attorney responsible for issuing and serving a subpoena must take reasonable steps to avoid imposing undue burden or expense on a person subject to the subpoena. The court for the district where compliance is required must enforce this duty and impose an appropriate sanction—which may include lost earnings and reasonable attorney’s fees—on a party or attorney who fails to comply.

(2) Command to Produce Materials or Permit Inspection.

(A) Appearance Not Required. A person commanded to produce documents, electronically stored information, or tangible things, or to permit the inspection of premises, need not appear in person at the place of production or inspection unless also commanded to appear for a deposition, hearing, or trial.

(B) Objections. A person commanded to produce documents or tangible things or to permit inspection may serve on the party or attorney designated in the subpoena a written objection to inspecting, copying, testing or sampling any or all of the materials or to inspecting the premises—or to producing electronically stored information in the form or forms requested. The objection must be served before the earlier of the time specified for compliance or 14 days after the subpoena is served. If an objection is made, the following rules apply:

(i) At any time, on notice to the commanded person, the serving party may move the court for the district where compliance is required for an order compelling production or inspection.

(ii) These acts may be required only as directed in the order, and the order must protect a person who is neither a party nor a party’s officer from significant expense resulting from compliance.

(3) Quashing or Modifying a Subpoena.

(A) When Required. On timely motion, the court for the district where compliance is required must quash or modify a subpoena that:

(i) fails to allow a reasonable time to comply;

(ii) requires a person to comply beyond the geographical limits specified in Rule 45(c);

(iii) requires disclosure of privileged or other protected matter, if no exception or waiver applies; or

(iv) subjects a person to undue burden.

(B) When Permitted. To protect a person subject to or affected by a subpoena, the court for the district where compliance is required may, on motion, quash or modify the subpoena if it requires:

(i) disclosing a trade secret or other confidential research, development, or commercial information; or

(ii) disclosing an unretained expert’s opinion or information that does not describe specific occurrences in dispute and results from the expert’s study that was not requested by a party.

(C) Specifying Conditions as an Alternative. In the circumstances described in Rule 45(d)(3)(B), the court may, instead of quashing or modifying a subpoena, order appearance or production under specified conditions if the serving party:

(i) shows a substantial need for the testimony or material that cannot be otherwise met without undue hardship; and

(ii) ensures that the subpoenaed person will be reasonably compensated.

(e) Duties in Responding to a Subpoena.

(1) Producing Documents or Electronically Stored Information. These procedures apply to producing documents or electronically stored information:

(A) Documents. A person responding to a subpoena to produce documents must produce them as they are kept in the ordinary course of business or must organize and label them to correspond to the categories in the demand.

(B) Form for Producing Electronically Stored Information Not Specified. If a subpoena does not specify a form for producing electronically stored information, the person responding must produce it in a form or forms in which it is ordinarily maintained or in a reasonably usable form or forms.

(C) Electronically Stored Information Produced in Only One Form. The person responding need not produce the same electronically stored information in more than one form.

(D) Inaccessible Electronically Stored Information. The person responding need not provide discovery of electronically stored information from sources that the person identifies as not reasonably accessible because of undue burden or cost. On motion to compel discovery or for a protective order, the person responding must show that the information is not reasonably accessible because of undue burden or cost. If that showing is made, the court may nonetheless order discovery from such sources if the requesting party shows good cause, considering the limitations of Rule 26(b)(2)(C). The court may specify conditions for the discovery.

(2) Claiming Privilege or Protection.

(A) Information Withheld. A person withholding subpoenaed information under a claim that it is privileged or subject to protection as trial-preparation material must:

(i) expressly make the claim; and

(ii) describe the nature of the withheld documents, communications, or tangible things in a manner that, without revealing information itself privileged or protected, will enable the parties to assess the claim.

(B) Information Produced. If information produced in response to a subpoena is subject to a claim of privilege or of protection as trial-preparation material, the person making the claim may notify any party that received the information of the claim and the basis for it. After being notified, a party must promptly return, sequester, or destroy the specified information and any copies it has; must not use or disclose the information until the claim is resolved; must take reasonable steps to retrieve the information if the party disclosed it before being notified; and may promptly present the information under seal to the court for the district where compliance is required for a determination of the claim. The person who produced the information must preserve the information until the claim is resolved.

(f) Transferring a Subpoena-Related Motion. When the court where compliance is required did not issue the subpoena, it may transfer a motion under this rule to the issuing court if the person subject to the subpoena consents or if the court finds exceptional circumstances. Then, if the attorney for a person subject to a subpoena is authorized to practice in the court where the motion was made, the attorney may file papers and appear on the motion as an officer of the issuing court. To enforce its order, the issuing court may transfer the order to the court where the motion was made.

(g) Contempt. 

The court for the district where compliance is required — and also, after a motion is transferred, the issuing court — may hold in contempt a person who, having been served, fails without adequate excuse to obey the subpoena or an order related to it.

Complicated, no? Here’s your breakdown. You’re welcome.


Subpoenas have to be written in a special format. A lot of things in law are kind of like “magic spells” a witch may cast, where you have to use specific words and do things in a specific order. Subpoenas are no different. If the subpoena is written incorrectly, it can get thrown out. That’s to prevent judges from just doing whatever they want, and to make sure everything is fair and consistent.


Once you have the format down, you need to make sure you serve the subpoena properly. Again, if you don’t, it could get thrown out. As dumb as this may sound, the reason behind it is to make sure the person being ordered to do something knows what’s going on. There are real consequences to failing to comply with a court order, and it’s not fair to make someone suffer those consequences if they didn’t know about any of what happened.

What you can subpoena

Not surprisingly, you can’t subpoena anything you want. There has to be a good reason for it, and it has to proportionate to what’s going on. And there’s good reason for this. Here’s a hypothetical:

You rear-end my client. He’s pissed off that you’ve scratched the bumper of his brand new Mercedes, and he’s coming for you. As soon as he learned you insurance wouldn’t put out to have the entire bumper replaced and he was going to have to just get it painted, his neck all of a sudden began to hurt.

Now, he’s in Connecticut, where pre-judgment remedy is a thing, he’s asked me to file for one so that he can get a lean on your house. Unfortunately, we’re having trouble getting together evidence of your financial status sufficient to convince a judge to grant the order.

As things stand currently, you’re good to go. Ordering you to pay for an audit of your entire financial history since your 18th birthday would be absolutely absurd, given what’s at issue. And the Courts recognize that.

But in a world without the Rules of Civil Procedure, you may not be. You’d be at the whim of the judge, and if he didn’t like you, you could be in some hot water (undeservingly).

Rule 45 (and the corresponding case law) prevents unreasonable intrusions

Rule 45 sets limits on what can and can’t be subpoena-ed. What precisely these rules prevent and allow is the subject of a huge amount of legal debate. These kinds of complexities are literally the reason that lawyers have jobs.

If you’re in a discovery dispute involving a subpoena, give us a call.

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