A class-action lawsuit has been filed against a controversial court-referred recovery program and an Arkansas-based company in the wake of a national news investigation that drew attention to the program’s practices and treatment of people assigned there.
The lawsuit, filed in the Northern district of Oklahoma on Tuesday morning, accuses Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery and Simmons Food Inc. of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, Oklahoma Protection of Labor Act, Oklahoma Minimum Wage Act and Oklahoma’s Human Trafficking statutes.
Tulsa law firm Smolen Smolen & Roytman filed the federal suit on behalf of Arthur Copeland, Brannon Spurgin, Brad McGahey and men who were or are currently assigned to the program.
The federal lawsuit accuses CAAIR and Simmons Food of failing to pay people placed in the program and failing to provide agreed-to drug and alcohol counseling and rehabilitation services.
Messages left for CAAIR president Janet Wilkerson were not responded to by publishing time, and Simmons Food Inc. could not be reached.
CAAIR, a Delaware-County based nonprofit, accepts men sent to the program by courts in Oklahoma and nearby states. Defendants stay there for at least a year and get treatment in lieu of prison time.
CAAIR and Simmons Food Inc. came under national scrutiny when Reveal, a national nonprofit investigative news organization, reported on Wednesday 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 dorm room,” the lawsuit alleges.
CAAIR is not certified as a drug-treatment program by the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
Simmons Food is a poultry company with annual revenues of about $1.4 billion.
The class-action suit alleges that men assigned to the program performed “taxing, manual labor” in a poultry processing plant. People placed in the program must slaughter and process birds which then are purchased by companies nationwide, including Walmart, KFC and PetSmart.
The lawsuit accuses CAAIR of committing fraud and breaching contract by failing to provide drug and alcohol counseling and rehabilitation services.
Additionally, CAAIR and Simmons Food allegedly obtained people’s labor through deception, force or threat.
“Defendants benefitted financially from participation in a venture that has engaged in an act of trafficking Plaintiffs and Putative Class Members for labor,” the suit states.
CAAIR and Simmons Food Inc., allegedly “conspired to profit from a vulnerable workforce under the guise of providing alcohol and drug counseling and rehabilitation services,” to people assigned to the program, the suit states.
“Under guise of a drug alcohol rehabilitation program, CAAIR and Simmons have subjected the Plaintiffs and putative class members to virtual slave labor,” a statement from Smolen Smolen & Roytman says.
The suit seeks 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.
“We have filed the lawsuit in an effort to expose this inhumane practice, recover remedies for those wronged and hopefully put an end to these unfair and unlawful labor practices,” the law firm’s statement reads.