Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Gobble Goblle - EEOC Wins $240 Million Disability Verdict Again Turkey Company

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") on May 1 won a $240 million award in a disability discrimination suit brought on behalf of 32 men with intellectual disabilities.
A federal jury in Davenport, Iowa, found that Hill Country Farms, doing business as Henry's Turkey Service, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") by subjecting the men to verbal abuse and physical harassment, housing them in a sub-standard dormitory, dismissing their complaints of injuries and forcing them to carry heavy weights as punishment. The verdict follows a September 2012 order from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa that the company pay the men $1.3 million for unlawful disability-based wage discrimination, for a combined penalty of $241.3 million. By way of background, according to the EEOC, for more than 30 years Hill Country Farms employed disabled men to work alongside non-disabled employees on the turkey processing line at a plant in West Liberty, Iowa. The EEOC in court papers described the case as "a story of the loss of human dignity that may well have been borne of better intentions in the 1960s, but which has devolved over the years into a morass of unfathomable and discriminatory, and exploitative conduct."
The men, who lived in a run-down, converted schoolhouse known as "the Bunkhouse," were paid $65 a month for working at least 35 hours a week eviscerating turkeys–or about 46 cents an hour. Wolfe later found that the men should have gotten $11 to $12 an hour. The defendants unsuccessfully argued that the pay constituted a minimum wage when room and board and in-kind care were factored in. The company also took $487 a month from each man's Social Security payments for expenses. In 2009, the Iowa Fire Marshal shut the bunkhouse down for unsafe, unclean and unhealthy conditions such as a leaky roof and insect infestation, and the men were removed. The EEOC filed suit in 2011. Hill Country Farms, which is based in Goldthwaite, Texas, and was represented by David Scieszinski, a solo practitioner in Wilton, Iowa, first argued that it wasn't actually the men's employer. The company contracted with the turkey processing plant to provide the disabled workers. The plant, which was originally owned by Louis Rich Foods, changed owners over the years, but Hill Country continued to provide the workers. During the trial, the EEOC presented evidence that supervisors called the workers "retarded," "dumb ass" and "stupid," and kicked, hit and in at least one case handcuffed them. The jury began deliberating on April 30 and reached a verdict in the morning of May 1. The jury awarded each of the men $2 million in punitive damages and $5.5 million in compensatory damages.