Mentally Disabled Workers at Turkey Plant Awarded $240 Million over Abuse03 May 2013
US - A Davenport, Iowa jury has awarded the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) damages totalling $240 million - the largest verdict in the federal agency's history - for disability discrimination and severe abuse.
The jury agreed with the EEOC that Hill County Farms, doing business as Henry's Turkey Service subjected a group of 32 men with intellectual disabilities to severe abuse and discrimination for a period between 2007 and 2009, after 20 years of similar mistreatment.
"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," said EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien.
The company is based in Goldthwaite, Texas, but the work and abuse occurred in West Liberty and Atalissa, Iowa. The jury awarded each of the men $2 million in punitive damages and $5.5 million in compensatory damages. This verdict follows a September 2012 order from the district court judge that Henry's Turkey pay the men $1.3 million for unlawful disability-based wage discrimination, thus making the total judgment $241.3 million.
EEOC presented evidence to the jury that Henry's Turkey exploited these workers, whose jobs involved eviscerating turkeys, because their intellectual disabilities made them particularly vulnerable and unaware of the extent to which their legal rights were being denied. The affected men lived in Muscatine County, Iowa, where they worked for 20 years as part of a contract between Henry's Turkey and West Liberty Foods, an Iowa turkey processing plant.
"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.
"The fact that the jury rendered the largest verdict ever obtained by the EEOC says volumes about the severity of the violation and it illustrates this agency's resolve to vindicate the rights of all discrimination victims."
Specifically, the EEOC presented evidence that for years and years the owners and staffers of Henry's Turkey subjected the workers to abusive verbal and physical harassment; restricted their freedom of movement; and imposed other harsh terms and conditions of employment such as requiring them to live in deplorable and sub-standard living conditions, and failing to provide adequate medical care when needed.
Verbal abuses included frequently referring to the workers as "retarded," "dumb ass" and "stupid." Class members reported acts of physical abuse including hitting, kicking, at least one case of handcuffing, and forcing the disabled workers to carry heavy weights as punishment. The Henry's Turkey supervisors, also the workers' purported caretakers, were often dismissive of complaints of injuries or pain.
"These men suffered isolation and exploitation for many years, while their employer cruelly consumed the fruits of their labor," said Robert A. Canino, regional attorney of the EEOC's Dallas District Office, which tried the case.
"Our society has come a long way in learning how persons with intellectual disabilities should be fully integrated into the mainstream workplace, without having to compromise their human dignity."
Such abuse violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, including intellectual disabilities, in terms and conditions of employment and wages and bars disability-based harassment. The EEOC filed its lawsuit (No. 3:11-cv-00041-CRW -TJS, in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa) after first attempting to settle the case through its conciliation process.
"The ADA provided us with a law enforcement tool to ensure fair treatment for persons with physical and mental disabilities," said Mr Canino.
He told the jury that Henry's Turkey treated the men "like property."
He added, "The jury heard the human stories of these men, understood what they suffered, and valued their experiences in reaching their verdict."
Mr Canino said the men "feel humiliation and suffer distress from their experiences even to this day."
Mr Canino urged the jury to think of the "broken lives of 32 hard-working but vulnerable intellectually disabled men" who were employees of Henry's Turkey.
In support of its case and to detail the human story for each of the victims at trial, the EEOC relied upon a nationally recognised expert in the field of care and treatment of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Dr. Sue Gant. Social workers from the Iowa Department of Human Services, former DHS manager Denise Gonzalez, and the staff of a disability support services provider, Exceptional Persons Inc. of Waterloo, Iowa, also provided in-depth personal perspectives with regard to the victims and the nature of the abuses suffered.
In addition to the EEOC's disability-based harassment and discrimination verdict, the EEOC earlier won a $1.3 million wage discrimination judgment when Senior U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Wolle found that, rather than the total of $65 dollars per month Henry's Turkey paid to the disabled workers while contracted to work on an evisceration line at the plant, the employees should have been compensated at the average wage of $11-12 per hour, reflecting pay typically earned by workers without intellectual disabilities who performed the same or similar work.
The EEOC's wage claims for each worker ranged from $28,000 to $45,000 in lost income over the course of their last two years before the Henry's Turkey Service operation was shut down in February 2009.
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