Discrimination in Prison Job May Cost Arizona

     (CN) – A private tomato farm that failed to accommodate a prisoner-worker’s ankle injury may leave Arizona liable, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.
     The Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) provides convict labor to Eurofresh Inc., a huge greenhouse operation that grows about 200 million pounds of tomatoes every year. In exchange the company pays inmate-pickers about $2.25 per hour, much more than they can make from a job inside the prison.
     William Castle, who served time for theft and fraud but has since been released, secured a Eurofresh job in 2008, but soon found that the hard labor aggravated a previous ankle injury. He says he asked his supervisors to allow him to take breaks during his seven-hour shift, but they allegedly refused and later fired him.
     Castle sued Eurofresh, the ADC and several officials under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
     A federal judge rejected the claims against Eurofresh because Castle was not an actual employee of the farm. As for the other claims, the court found that state officials had accommodated Castle’s injury by giving him a job in the prison motor pool where he made about 50 cents an hour.
     The 9th Circuit partly reversed Tuesday, finding that the state may be liable under the ADA. The three-judge appeals panel agreed that Eurofresh has no part in the action because Castle was technically not its employee. Rather, “his labor belongs to the state of Arizona, which put him to work at Eurofresh in order to comply with its statutory obligations.”
     As such, the state cannot so easily escape the claims, according to the ruling.
     “The state defendants admit that ACI [Arizona Correctional Industries] contracts with Eurofresh to provide ‘benefits’ to state inmates, including paid labor and vocational training,” Judge Marsha Berzon wrote for the unanimous panel. “The state defendants are free to enter into such contracts, and likely reap numerous benefits from such arrangements. But one benefit state defendants may not harvest is immunity for ADA violations: state defendants are obligated to ensure that Eurofresh – like all other state contractors – complies with federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability.”
     The panel remanded the case for a hearing on whether the state defendants violated the ADA.
     In a concurrence, Judge Marsha Berzon wrote that, while precedent required her to agree to dismiss Eurofresh, she did so only reluctantly. She argued that whole system is less than ideal.
     “Permitting private employers to escape … costs while profiting from the use of prison labor markets undermines the enforcement of the statutory requirements generally, by creating incentives for competing employers to shirk compliance with regard to non-prison labor – and thereby economically disadvantaging competitors of those employers using prison labor,” she wrote.

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