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Slave Labor Suit Against GEO Advances in Denver: Menocal v. Geo Group

July 09, 2015 (3 min read)

Law360, July 8, 2015 - "A federal judge has ruled the owner of a private detention center in Colorado must face a potential class action alleging it violated federal law by forcing immigrant detainees to work for little or no pay.

U.S. District Judge John L. Kane in Denver on Monday denied The GEO Group Inc.’s bid to dismiss claims it violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act by forcing unpaid detainees to clean their living areas under the threat of solitary confinement.

The judge also allowed the plaintiffs to pursue claims that GEO Group was unjustly enriched by the free labor as well as a “voluntary work program” at the 1,500-bed Aurora Detention Facility, in which detainees did various tasks around the center for $1 per day.

The judge did, however, dismiss claims that the work program violated the Colorado Minimum Wage Order, ruling the workers were not employees under the law.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs touted Judge Kane’s decision as a historic ruling, and said it is believed to be the first time a court has held that a for-profit immigrant detention contractor may be held liable for alleged violations of the TVPA.

“This case is really important because private companies that are in the business of incarcerating immigrants for profit should not be allowed to pad their profit margins by forcing the detainees to work for nothing, or next to nothing,” Brandt Milstein of the Milstein Law Office told Law360 on Wednesday.

Filed last October on behalf of nine current and former detainees, the lawsuit claims they were required to perform tasks like scrub bathrooms, wax floors and maintain the center’s landscaping. In return, they were paid $1 per day.  Several detainees were also selected each day to clean the pods for no pay, and coerced into doing the work with threats of solitary confinement, the complaint said.

The plaintiffs alleged the unpaid work violated the TVPA’s prohibition on forced labor and sought to represent more than 1,000 detainees who had been coerced into working for free at the Aurora Detention Facility since 2004.

“GEO’s pay policies violate principles of justice, equity, and good conscience,” the complaint said.

In a statement Wednesday, GEO Group said its facilities adhere to strict standards set by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and have received high rankings during independent audits. The Boca Raton, Florida-headquartered company also said its work program's standards and wage rates are set by the federal government. 

“GEO’s facilities, including the Aurora, Colo. Facility, provide high quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments, and our company strongly refutes allegations to the contrary,” it said.

GEO Group told the court the case should be dismissed, in part because it said all claims were barred by the so-called government contractor defense. The defense allows private contractors to sometimes share the government’s immunity from certain state law claims.

But Judge Kane said the GEO Group’s contract with the Department of Homeland Security and ICE didn’t prohibit it from paying detainees more than $1 per day or create a “significant conflict” with state law, which is required to assert the defense.

The judge also rejected the company’s argument that the TVPA did not apply to immigration detainees. He said higher courts have held the TVPA applies to “whoever ... obtains the labor or services of a person by ... threats of physical restraint.”

“In addition, defendants have cited no authority for reading a civic duty exception into [the law], or for applying such an exception to a private, for-profit corporation under contract with the government,” Judge Kane wrote.

Milstein said Wednesday the work performed by the immigrant detainees should have been jobs that were filled by the community. He said the plaintiffs hope the ruling could lead to changes in the way GEO Group operates its business.

“Our hope is that building on this ruling we’ll be able to stop private prison companies from forcing the people who they detain to do the work of maintaining the facility that the company itself should be tasked with doing,” he said.

The plaintiffs are represented by Brandt Milstein of the Milstein Law Office, Andrew Turner of Buescher Kelman & Perera PC, Alexander Hood of Towards Justice, Hans Meyer of the Meyer Law Office PC, and R. Andrew Free of the Law Office of R. Andrew Free.

Geo Group is represented by Shelby A. Felton and David R. DeMuro of Vaughan & DeMuro.

The case is Alejandro Menocal et al., v. The Geo Group Inc., case number 1:14-cv-02887, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado."