Judge: Lawsuit over forced labor at chicken plants can move forward

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Views of the Simmons chicken farm along Highway 43 in Southwest City, Missouri.
Photo by Shane Bevel/ For Reveal

A lawsuit against a multibillion-dollar company brought by three men who were forced to work for free in chicken processing plants can move forward, a federal judge has ruled.

The men’s claims alleging racketeering, labor law violations and human trafficking are sufficiently plausible for the case to continue, the judge wrote in an opinion and order earlier this month.

The class-action lawsuit, filed in October 2017 in the Northern District of Oklahoma, alleges Jay-based Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery — or CAAIR — and Simmons Food Inc. forced men to work for free under threats of being sent to prison if their work was unsatisfactory. The suit accuses the organizations of fraud because the men did not receive the rehabilitation or treatment they were promised. 

Instead, they were required to work for more than 40 hours per week. 

Class-action suit filed against court-referred work program following national investigation

CAAIR is a program that, through state drug courts, puts men to work slaughtering chickens in processing plants in lieu of prison time. The program provided no rehabilitation services and kept participants’ wages. In cases where participants were injured, CAAIR would keep their workers’ compensation payments. 

Participants, while processing chickens for Simmons, were under “constant threat of incarceration” if their work was deemed unsatisfactory or if they were unable to work due to injuries, according to court filings. Arkansas-based Simmons Foods, a company with annual revenues of about $1.4 billion, contracted with CAAIR to purchase cheap labor in exchange for donations and/or payments at a discounted rate.

In an opinion and order issued earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Terence Kern ruled the majority of the claims in the case should move forward in the court process and rejected Simmons’ motion to throw out the case against it. 

The men alleged CAAIR and Simmons violated state and federal labor laws that require employers to pay minimum wage and overtime for their work. Simmons, in court filings, has maintained program participants were not employed by the company.

However, the judge found, participants could have been considered employees under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

“For example, Plaintiffs’ allegations that Simmons threatened them with prison if their work was unsatisfactory, or if they were unable to work, suggest that Simmons had the power to hire and fire Plaintiffs,” the opinion stated.

And, the judge found, though Simmons argued participants were not employees because they worked without promise or expectation of pay, the men’s lawsuit alleges they worked overtime and Simmons purchased their labor from CAAIR at discounted rates or with a donation.

Simmons also argued the workers were similar to “prisoners,” and were not considered employees because they were not willingly working, but participating in a program to avoid prison time.

“While Plaintiffs, who are in the rehabilitative custody of C.A.A.I.R., bear some similarities to incarcerated prisoners, they are not actually incarcerated,” the judge’s opinion stated.

The men alleged Simmons used “threats and coercion to cause Plaintiffs to reasonably believe that they had no alternative but continue to work for Simmons.” Simmons argued the claim was untrue because participants were free to leave the program at any time.

However, the judge found, the men’s status “as participants in the drug court program constitutes a special vulnerability that the Court must consider.” 

The judge ruled the claim that Simmons obtained forced labor through threats and claims of Simmons and CAAIR racketeering could move forward.

“Simmons’s conduct went beyond the normal course of business, as they entered into a contract with C.A.A.I.R. to receive labor at below-market rates… It also appears that Simmons executed C.A.A.I.R’s policy of issuing threats of prison,” the opinion stated.

The judge dismissed the claim against all defendants alleging they violated the men’s Thirteenth Amendment rights through involuntary servitude and forced labor. A claim that Simmons engaged in forced servitude and forced labor by bringing participants to CAAIR’s program under the guise of rehabilitation was also dismissed.

“Plaintiffs have not alleged any facts establishing that Simmons was in any way involved in bringing Plaintiffs to the C.A.A.I.R. facility to participate in a rehabilitation program,” the opinion stated.

CAAIR and Simmons Food Inc. came under national scrutiny when Reveal, a national nonprofit investigative news organization, reported in 2017 that instead of getting treatment, people assigned to the program were forced to work in chicken plants without pay and essentially were turned into “indentured servants.”

The only payment workers received were daily bologna sandwiches and a bunk bed in a “cramped, unsanitary dorm room,” according to the lawsuit.

CAAIR is not certified as a drug-treatment program by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

The men are seeking damages in excess of $5 million, including minimum wage and overtime pay for people who work at the plant either presently or within the last three years, as well as statutory penalties, economic damages, and compensatory and punitive damages.

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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