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‘Overly broad’ EEOC subpoena request denied on appeal

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A federal appeals court has upheld a lower court ruling that denied the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission a subpoena in its broad discrimination investigation of a laboratory on the basis the agency’s intent was “difficult to pin down.”

Kellie Guadiana, a phlebotomist at Albuquerque, New Mexico-based TriCore Reference Laboratories, asked for accommodations to her work schedule and responsibilities because of her rheumatoid arthritis, which she asserted was exacerbated by her pregnancy, according to Monday’s ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. TriCore Reference Laboratories.

TriCore’s human resources department decided Ms. Guadiana could not safely perform her job’s essential functions, but offered her the opportunity to apply to other positions within the company. It terminated her in May 2012 after she did not apply for a new position.

Ms. Guadiana then filed charges against the company with the EEOC for disability discrimination because of her rheumatoid arthritis, and for sex discrimination because of her pregnancy.

The EEOC expanded its investigation of TriCore beyond Ms. Guadiana and sought a complete list of TriCore employees who had requested disability accommodations, as well as a complete list of employees who had been pregnant, for a four-year time frame, which it subsequently amended to a three-year frame.

The EEOC subpoenaed the information after TriCore refused to comply. TriCore then also refused to comply with the subpoena, arguing it was unduly burdensome and a “fishing expedition.” The EEOC asked the U.S. District Court in Albuquerque to order a show cause as to why the subpoena should not be enforced.

In denying the EEOC’s application, the District Court said the EEOC’s “real intent in requesting this (information was), in fact, difficult to pin down,” according to the ruling. The EEOC appealed the issue to the 10th Circuit.

A three-judge appeals court panel unanimously agreed with the lower court’s denial. “The EEOC has not alleged anything to suggest a pattern or practice of discrimination beyond TriCore’s failure to reassign Ms. Guadiana,” said the ruling. 

The ruling referred to the 10th Circuit’s 2012 ruling in EEOC vs. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, in which it had ruled against what it deemed was an overly broad subpoena.

“Although the EEOC’s request to TriCore was not as broad as the ‘incredibly broad request’ for three years of nationwide data in Burlington Northern ... the request here rests on no firmer foundation to justify the EEOC’s expanded investigation,” said the panel.

“Our decision should not preclude the EEOC from formulating a request for information to overcome the concerns discussed in this opinion,” said the ruling, in affirming the lower court ruling.