Private Immigration Prison Must Face Forced Labor Class Action

FILE – In this Aug. 28, 2019, file photo, detainees exercise at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in Adelanto, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File)

SAN DIEGO (CN) – Private detention company CoreCivic must face a novel employment class action by immigrants held at its facilities in California and nationwide, a federal judge ruled Wednesday in certifying forced labor claims against the private prison operator.

U.S. District Judge Janis Sammartino found in a 59-page order that several classes could pursue their class action labor claims against CoreCivic.

Former detainees Sylvester Owino and Jonathan Gomez sued CoreCivic – formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America – in 2017, alleging the private prison operator violated federal and state labor laws by using detainees “to clean, maintain, and operate” the Otay Mesa Detention Facility in San Diego while paying detainees between $0.75 and $1.50 a day for their work.

The plaintiffs sought to certify five separate classes.

Sammartino certified three of them Wednesday: the California and National Forced Labor Classes, as well as the California Labor Law Class on several causes of action including failure to pay minimum wage or provide wage statements, failure to pay all wages due upon termination and imposition of unlawful conditions of employment.

The certified classes include immigrant detainees presently held in CoreCivic facilities.

Both the California and National Forced Labor Classes were certified in their entirety.

In doing so, Sammartino rejected CoreCivic’s argument because both men were detained in California, they could not represent a nationwide class.

“The court concludes that plaintiffs adequately have established standardized policies concerning the cleaning of common areas under threat of discipline across defendant’s non-California facilities,” Sammartino wrote.

But the judge dismissed their claims seeking injunctive or declaratory relief, finding the two men lack standing because they are unlikely to again suffer future harms since Owino has been out of custody for four years while Gomez has been out of ICE custody for six years and neither has been detained or arrested since.

Owino’s detention ended March 9, 2015 while Gomez’s detention ended on Sept. 18, 2013.

Sammartino also rejected certifying the Basic Necessities Classes for detainees who worked at CoreCivic facilities and were only allowed to spend their $1 a day at the detention facilities’ commissary stores.

On the California Labor Law Class, Sammartino found the former detainees could certify several claims challenging their alleged misclassification as “volunteers” rather than employees.

As to claims regarding overtime wages, Sammartino found CoreCivic’s own “standard policies” and handbooks indicate no overtime was ever paid because “compensation was $1.00 per day.”

She also found the plaintiffs had established CoreCivic employs common “sanitation and discipline policies” where detainees are required to clean common living areas under threat of discipline.

“There is no indication from the face of the policies that these tasks are to be performed only by those participating in the [Voluntary Work Program], and there exists a dispute of fact based on the declarations submitted by staff of defendant, who testified that the sanitation policies did not require detainees to clean up after others,” Sammartino found.

Disciplinary guidelines regarding a detainee’s refusal to clean common areas “can be found in handbooks from other of defendant’s facilities, both within and outside of California,” Sammartino noted.

Records of when detainees worked – while incomplete – appear to show the set schedules for various positions held by participants in Volunteer Work Program, Sammartino pointed out.

“This evidence may allow the trier of fact to determine which participants in the [Volunteer Work Program] were paid less than the minimum wage—and by how much— based on the difference between the payment received and the number of hours per shift for the position,” Sammartino wrote.

Attorneys with Foley & Lardner, representing the class members, did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.

CoreCivic said in a statement its detainees are not subject to disciplinary action if they choose not to participate in its Voluntary Work Program.

“All of our ICE detention facilities are operated in full compliance with ICE standards, including federally established payment of allowances for those detainees who participate in the voluntary work program,” CoreCivic said.

“Detainees are subject to no disciplinary action whatsoever if they choose not to participate in the work program, nor are they forced to participate in the work program or perform the labor reserved for that program. We have worked in close partnership with ICE for more than 30 years and will continue to provide a safe and humane environment to those entrusted to our care.”

CoreCivic is represented by Arizona law firm Struck Love.

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