September 24, 2017

Tenth Circuit: District Court Did Not Abuse Discretion in Refusing to Enforce Subpoena

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. TriCore Reference Laboratories on February 27, 2017.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is empowered to investigate charges of discrimination and enforce both Title VII, which prohibits employers from discriminating based on sex, including pregnancy, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their disability and requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” to qualified individuals. When investigating charges of discrimination, the EEOC may obtain evidence that relates to unlawful employment practices covered by Title VII and is relevant to the charge under investigation. If the employer refuses to comply, the EEOC may issue a subpoena compelling production. If the employer does not respond to the subpoena, the EEOC may apply to a federal district court for an order compelling the employer to comply.

Kellie Guadiana worked for TriCore Reference Laboratories as a phlebotomist. She requested accommodations due to her rheumatoid arthritis, which was exacerbated by her pregnancy. TriCore’s human resource department determined Ms. Guadiana could not perform the essential functions of her position safely. The HR department offered her the opportunity to apply to other positions within the company. When Ms. Guadiana did not apply to a new position, TriCore terminated her.

Ms. Guadiana filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC alleging that TriCore discriminated against her due to her disability (rheumatoid arthritis) and sex (pregnancy). TriCore explained to the EEOC that it had provided reasonable accommodations by offering her the chance to apply to a new position within the company. EEOC explained that this was a violation of the ADA because the ADA required TriCore to reassign Ms. Guadiana rather than merely provide her with the opportunity to apply to a new position. TriCore statement led the EEOC to suspect that TriCore had a company policy or practice of refusing to provide reassignment as a reasonable accommodation. Due to this, the EEOC informed TriCore in a letter that it was expanding the scope of its investigation to include the failure to accommodate persons with disabilities and failure to accommodate women with disabilities due to pregnancy.

The EEOC sent TriCore another letter requesting a complete list of TriCore employees who had requested an accommodation for disability and a complete list of TriCore employees who had been pregnant while at TriCore and whether they sought or were granted accommodations. TriCore refused to comply. The EEOC subpoenaed the information. When TriCore refused to comply, the EEOC submitted an application to the US District Court for the District of New Mexico requesting an order to show cause why the subpoena should not be enforced. The district court denied the EEOC’s application noting that the EEOC’s real intent in requesting the information was difficult to pin down.

The issue on appeal was whether the district court erred in declining to enforce the EEOC’s subpoena. The Tenth Circuit reviewed the district court’s decision for abuse of discretion. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the enforcement of either the disability request, which the EEOC asserted was relevant to its investigation into whether TriCore had a policy of discrimination (i.e., pattern-or-practice evidence), or the pregnancy request, which EEOC asserted was relevant to the investigation whether TriCore treated Ms. Guadiana less favorably than similarly situated employees (i.e., comparator evidence).

Under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, the EEOC is empowered to investigate charges of discrimination. But the EEOC has the burden to demonstrate the relevancy of the information sought in a subpoena. The Tenth Circuit referenced the Supreme Court’s decision in University of Pennsylvania v. EEOC, when stating the law that the EEOC does not need to provide a “specific reason” for requesting the information. However, the Tenth Circuit further cites that case for the law that the EEOC still bears the burden of showing the relevancy of the subpoenaed information.  To do so, the Tenth Circuit held that the EEOC must show that it has a realistic expectation that the information requested would advance the investigation. The EEOC must also establish a link between the EEOC’s investigatory power and the charges of discrimination.

The Tenth Circuit held that the EEOC’s intent was difficult to pin down. With regard to the pattern-or-practice evidence, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the EEOC’s request. The Tenth Circuit held that TriCore’s admission that it did not reassign Ms. Guadiana did not justify the EEOC’s expanded investigation beyond its initial investigation into Ms. Guadiana’s individual case. The Tenth Circuit held that the EEOC’s letter informing TriCore of its expanded investigation did not constitute a “charge” of discrimination, which is required under § 2000e-8 for the EEOC to seek information about alleged discrimination.  The EEOC had not alleged anything suggesting a pattern or practice of discrimination by TriCore. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding TriCore’s alleged violation of the ADA, without more, was insufficient to warrant the EEOC’s expanded investigation. The EEOC did not satisfy its burden to justify its expanded investigation.

Next, the Tenth Circuit held that the EEOC waived the disability request part of its comparator-evidence argument on appeal. This was due to the fact that the EEOC limited its comparator-evidence argument on appeal to the pregnancy request.  Therefore, the Tenth Circuit considered only the pregnancy request.

The Tenth Circuit held that the EEOC’s pregnancy request could seek information that was potentially relevant to Ms. Guadiana’s charge, which could tend to prove she was denied an accommodation on the basis of her disability. However, the EEOC did not present those relevance arguments in district court. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that the EEOC failed to meet its burden of explaining how the pregnancy request would offer information relevant to Ms. Guadiana’s charge. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding.

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