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Court blocks EEOC subpoena attempt, citing irrelevance

Posted On: Mar. 30, 2017 2:10 PM CST

Information the US. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is seeking in investigating a discrimination charge is not relevant, says a U.S. District Court, in rejecting an EEOC application for a show cause order as to why a subpoena should not be enforced.

The court also stated the agency may not use the subpoena as a “backdoor means” to obtain information available elsewhere.

Christine Cordero was hired by Knoxville, Tennessee-based Southeast Food Services Co. L.L.C., a franchisee of Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy’s Co., in September 2012 as a crew member at one of its fast-food locations, according to Monday’s ruling by the U.S. District Court in Knoxville in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Southeast Food Services Co. L.L.C., d/b/a/ Wendy’s.

About two weeks later, the company offered to promote her to crew leader, but first required her to sign a general release waving all claim she may have against the company up to the date of the release’s execution, according to the ruling. This was in line with the firm’s promotion policy over the past 20 years.

Although Ms. Cordero did not have any claims against the company, she refused to sign the release because she felt the company was discriminating against her by making its request, said the ruling. She was not promoted as a result.

Ms. Cordero filed a discrimination charge with the agency in December 2014, charging it retaliated against her by failing to promote her because of her refusal to sign the release.

In February 2016, the EEOC issued a subpoena seeking the identity and contact information for all current and former employees, since Dec. 4, 2012, until the present; for those who signed a release of claims; and for those who were promoted. 

It also sought information related to their dates of hire, promotion advances and termination, reasons for termination, current and former job titles, and copies of the release, among other documents.

When Southeast Food Services objected to the subpoena, the EEOC filed its show cause application with the District Court, seeking an order as to why it should not be enforced.

“It’s not immediately clear to the court how the information sought by the subpoena will advance the commission’s investigator,” said the ruling. “The Commission is investigating an individual charge of discrimination … There are no additional charges of retaliatory discrimination and no other charging party besides Ms. Cordero.”

The ruling cited a February 2017 ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. TriCore Reference Laboratories in which the appeals court upheld a ruling that denied the EEOC a subpoena in its broad discrimination investigation of a laboratory on the basis the agency’s intent was “difficult to pin down.”

The ruling states that at a Feb. 28, 2017, hearing, the EEOC “admitted for the first time” it was “looking at a possible class action.”

“If the Commission desires to conduct a broader ‘pattern-or-practice’ investigation, it is empowered to file a Commissioner’s charge,” said the ruling. “The Commission, however, may not use Ms. Cordero’s charge as a backdoor means to obtain information that is more appropriately available through other channels,” said the ruling, in denying the EEOC’s application.

An EEOC spokeswoman had no comment.