COA split over inmate’s ability to sue for unpaid wages

December 9, 2015

The Indiana Court of Appeals was divided Wednesday over whether an inmate who worked for a private company that contracted with the Department of Correction to employ offenders was allowed under Indiana statute to make a claim for unpaid wages.

Chuck Adams worked in ArvinMeritor Inc.’s brake shop, where he eventually earned $1.10 an hour. Comparable work done by non-inmates at a Plainfield, Indiana, facility paid at least $11.71 per hour, Adams alleged.

After he was injured on the job and allegedly improperly treated, he filed a lawsuit for unpaid wages against Meritor and state defendants, which was joined by other inmate brake shop employees. Adams’ lawsuit also stated a personal injury claim against other medical and state defendants. The trial court granted the defendants’ Trial Rule 12(B)(6) motions to dismiss the wage claim, after finding Adams had no private right of action to sue for such wages. The court also granted the defendants’ motion on the personal injury claim on the basis that Adams did not exhaust his administrative remedies.

The majority noted Meritor is a private enterprise subject to the Wage Payment Statute. At the time Adams filed his complaint, the only limitation in I.C. 11-10-7 on an offender’s wages was that he or she was not eligible for unemployment compensation benefits. I.C. 11-10-7-4 provides “at least an implied right to sue for failure to pay the prevailing wage” because the Legislature later amended the chapter to specifically exempt criminal offenders in a facility operated by the DOC, Judge Margret Robb wrote for the majority.  

“There may be other impediments to Adams’s recovery of the wages to which he claims he is entitled which will be discerned at a later stage in the development of the record. But Adams’s complaint, filed prior to May 9, 2013, has on its face stated a claim upon which relief could be granted,” she wrote.

Judge Melissa May dissented on this point, believing Blanck v. Ind. Dep’t of Corr., 829 N.E.2d 505, 509 (Ind. 2005), and Kimrey v. Donahue, 861 N.E.2d 379, 382 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007), trans. denied, do not permit reversal based on only an implied right of action.

“The majority implies a cause of action on the premise that such was the legislature’s intent. But our Supreme Court has cautioned that legislative intent is best determined by what the statutory language itself includes and not include,” May wrote.

The judges all agreed that summary judgment was proper for the defendants on Adams’ personal injury claim because he did not exhaust administrative remedies. He argued the DOC’s grievance procedure could not provide him the specific relief he wanted – monetary damages. But that does not render the administrative remedy “unavailable,” Robb wrote.

The judges also affirmed the decision of the lower court to conduct a hearing in his absence.  The case is Chuck W. Adams, Charles E. Howard, et al. v. ArvinMeritor, Inc., et al., 49A02-1406-PL-465.


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