In the biggest jury verdict in agency history, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission 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 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 sends an important message that the conduct that occurred here is intolerable in this nation, and hopefully will help to restore dignity and acknowledge the humanity of the workers who were mistreated for so many years," EEOC Chair Jacqueline Berrien said in a statement.
The verdict follows a September 2012 order from Judge Charles Wolfe of 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.
For more than 30 years, according to the EEOC, 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.
When the EEOC, represented by Robert Canino and Devika Seth of the Dallas District Office, moved for partial summary judgment last year on the wage discrimination claim, Hill Country filed no resistance or other documents opposing the motion.
Wolfe found that Hill Country was indeed the employer, noting that the company supervised the workers, determined job assignments, set the rate of pay, issued paychecks and was listed as the employer on the workers’ W-2 forms.
Last month, he granted the EEOC’s motion that the company be barred from raising this defense during the trial. The EEOC argued that "the issue of what entity was the employer in this case has been resolved and adjudicated."
Scieszinski did not return a call seeking comment.
During the trial, which began on April 23, 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.
Canino told the jury that the company treated the men "like property," and urged the jurors to think of the "broken lives of 32 hard-working but vulnerable intellectually disabled men," according to the EEOC.
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.
"This historic verdict marks one of the EEOC’s finest moments in its ongoing efforts to combat employment discrimination, especially discrimination against vulnerable and historically underserved populations," said EEOC General Counsel David Lopez.
Jenna Greene can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.