5th Cir. Nixes Discovery |of Immigration Docs

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) — The Fifth Circuit tossed a discovery order that would have allowed a Mississippi chicken plant to access the visa paperwork of Hispanic employees accusing it of harassment.
     The Sept. 27 ruling stems from a 2011 federal complaint filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of 11 employees against Koch Foods of Mississippi.
     The Morton-based chicken-kill plant has maintained throughout the litigation that the workers made up their claims of abuse and discrimination in an attempt to get U visas, a class of visa available to abuse victims who assist in government investigations.
     “Allowing discovery of U visa information may have a chilling effect extending well beyond this case, imperiling important public purposes,” Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote, on behalf of the three-judge panel.
     “Having weighed all of the problems U visa discovery may cause against Koch’s admittedly significant interest in obtaining the discovery, we are compelled to conclude that the discovery the district court approved would impose an undue burden and must be redefined,” Higginbotham said.
     
     The New Orleans-based appeals court stopped short of rejecting Koch’s access to the immigration documents altogether, and sent the case back to the district court “to devise an approach to U visa discovery that adequately protects the diverse and competing interests at stake.”
     “Because claimants’ U visa applications would be novel and significant impeachment evidence, we do not forbid U visa discovery outright,” the ruling says. “At a minimum, however, any U visa discovery must not reveal to Koch the identities of any visa applicants and their families, at least in the liability phase.”
     Each of the 11 workers behind the suit claims to have been harassed by the same Koch manager between 2004 and 2008, in the deboning section of a Koch plant. The EEOC says it has since identified more employees who suffered similar attacks and discrimination while working under that same supervisor.
     At oral arguments in June, attorneys for Koch Foods told the appeals court the allegations came on the “heels of an immigration raid” and that the documents “could not be any more relevant.”
     EEOC attorneys said they were trying to protect their clients.
     Koch did not return an emailed request for comment Wednesday afternoon.
     The company is one of the leading chicken processors in the nation, processing some 12 million chickens a week and more than 50 million pounds of ready-to-cook chicken.
     Last week, OSHA fined the Morton, Mississippi plant $89,000 in penalties for nine serious safety violations, including workers facing falls, unguarded machinery, and electric shock hazards.

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