Chicken Plant Presses Court for Visa Records

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) — A Mississippi slaughterhouse pushed the Fifth Circuit to let it access visa paperwork on the employees accusing it of harassment.
     Emphasizing that the allegations against Koch Foods came on the “heels of an immigration raid,” an attorney for the chicken-kill plant in Morton says the workers’ visa-application information “could not be any more relevant.”
     The information “is needed to show whether these individuals actually had these acts committed upon them,” Scott Pedigo, of Baker Donelson in Jackson, told the federal appeals court Wednesday.
     Koch Foods has maintained throughout the litigation that the workers only claimed harassment and discrimination in an attempt to get visas.
     The appeal stems from a 2011 federal complaint that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed on behalf of 11 employees.
     Jerry Gonzalez, of Southern Migrant Legal Services, said he and the EEOC are simply trying to protect their clients. Southern Migrant Legal Services is a special project of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
     The EEOC appealed to the Fifth Circuit after a federal judge found the visa documentation relevant to discovery.
     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 than 115 other people who suffered similar attacks and discrimination while working under that same supervisor.
     Gonzalez said it would be intrusive to disclose visa-related documentation, and that doing so could have a chilling effect on Koch employees who might otherwise report abuses.
     Pedigo meanwhile told the court “there is no undue burden” for the plaintiffs.
     “We want all documentation,” Pedigo told the judges. “Not only is documentation relevant, it won’t affect their right to obtain new visas.”
     Judge Patrick Higginbotham, who owes his nomination to the court to President Ronald Reagan, asked Pedigo how many Koch employees do not speak English.
     “Hundreds, I’m sure,” Pedigo replied.
     “It’s illegal to employ people who do not have documents, correct?” Higginbotham asked.
     Pedigo replied that anti-discrimination laws bar employers from asking directly about documentation.
     “The law says you cannot assume someone does not have documents simply because they are — for instance — Hispanic,” he said.
     Judges James Dennis and Edith Brown Clement presided over the hearing as well. The panel did not indicate when they will issue a ruling.
     After the hearing, EEOC attorney Anne King said she is not at liberty to discuss the case.
     Koch did not return a request for comment.
     The company is one of the leading chicken processors in the nation, processes 12 million chickens a week and more than 50 million pounds of ready-to-cook chicken.
     In 2007, an immigration raid at a Koch Foods company plant in Ohio resulted in the arrest of 161 people for being in the country illegally and a fine of over $500,000 for Koch Foods.
     More recently, an animal rights group released hidden-camera footage showing chicken abuse at plants in Mississippi and Tennessee. Koch did not respond to the allegations.
     The EEOC filed its lawsuit in Jackson, Mississippi, after attempts at a settlement proved unsuccessful.

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