Judge to rule on motion to dismiss prisoners’ labor trafficking, ADA claims

Prisoners in the New Castle Correctional Facility’s Mental Health Unit are fighting a motion to dismiss their complaint against the private contractor that operates the facility, alleging they sufficiently pleaded facts to support their claims of involuntary servitude, peonage and labor trafficking.

DaMarcus Figgs and David Corbin filed a class action lawsuit in mid-December against The Geo Group, Inc., a Florida-based for-profit corporation that operates the New Castle Correctional Facility through a contract with the Indiana Department of Correction. The complaint – originally filed in the Henry Circuit Court but later removed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana – alleges The Geo Group forces Figgs, Corbin and more than 100 other mentally disabled prisoners to spend at least 20 hours a day locked in a room performing tasks such as cleaning, completing reports and “carrying out (the) obligations of Defendant’s contracts.”

The prisoners also alleged they are forced to assist non-disabled prisoners in their work and are “recruited” into the Mental Health Unit under the guise that they need to be “stabilized” after suffering serious injury or trauma in prison. Once in the MHU, the plaintiffs alleged they cannot stop working “absent threat of force or punishment” and are often denied breaks.

“But for the detention and labor of class members,” the complaint alleges, “Defendant could not profitably operate the MHU at New Castle Correctional Facility.”

Figgs and Corbin both suffer from antisocial personality disorder and depression, while Corbin also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. The class members experience similar afflictions, they allege, and, thus struggle to adequately think and care for themselves. As a result, the plaintiffs alleged The Geo Group’s actions violate their rights under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the Eighth and 14th Amendments, The Americans with Disabilities and Rehabilitation acts and numerous state law protections.

The Geo Group moved the district court to dismiss the federal complaint in mid-January, arguing the prisoners failed to sufficiently plead facts that would allow their complaint to survive.

The corporation first alleged the DOC, not The Geo Group, determines where an inmate is housed, so The Geo Group cannot be said to have “trafficked” prisoners into the MHU.  Further, Indiana law authorizes a requirement for prisoners to “perform chores and maintenance tasks while incarcerated,” the defendant argued, and those tasks fall under the “civic duty” exception to involuntary servitude. The prisoners, however, pointed to the District of Colorado’s decision in Menocal v. GEO Group, Inc., 113 F.Supp.3d 1125, 1128, which rejected the argument that The Geo Group, as a private for-profit corporation, was entitled under the civic duty exception.

The Geo Group also argued the Eighth Amendment claim fails as a matter of law because extended confinement to a cell does not, on its own, constitute a constitutional violation. Similarly, the prisoners conceded that they struggle to think for themselves, the corporation said, so the fact that they are asked to assist non-disabled prisoners, rather than working on their own, does not rise to the level of discrimination in violation of the 14th amendment.

But in their brief in opposition to the motion to dismiss, the prisoners claimed IPAS et al. v. Commissioner, 2012 WL 6738517 at *15-17 (S.D. Ind. Dec. 31, 2012), supports their Eighth Amendment argument. That case holds that “the severe conditions in the segregation units cause a predictable deterioration of the mental health of seriously mentally ill prisoners… .” They also claimed the evidence would show that the mere presence of their mental disabilities could not provide a rational basis for their treatment that would defeat their 14th Amendment claim.

Turning to the claims under the Americans with Disabilities and Rehabilitation acts, The Geo Group argued the prisoners are not their employees and, thus, cannot succeed on their employment discrimination claims. But the prisoners asserted existing caselaw qualifies them as “employees” under the federal employment discrimination laws.

Finally, the Geo Group argued the prisoner’s “grab-bag of state tort claims” fail because they did not adequately plead false imprisonment, confinement, unjust enrichment or negligence claims. Figgs and Collins, however, responded by noting that an individual can be found to be unlawfully imprisoned, and the “civic duty exception” cannot apply to their unjust enrichment claims.

The plaintiff’s brief in opposition was filed Jan. 31, and a ruling on the motion to dismiss the case of DaMarcus Figgs and David Corbin, et al., v. The Geo Group, Inc., 1:1b-cv-00089 within the next two months.

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