Farmworkers awarded $460K in wage theft, labor trafficking judgment

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A northern Indiana federal court has ordered a farm in Fowler and its owners to pay more than $460,000 in compensation and damages to nine farmworkers who alleged they were forced to work without pay, housed in abysmal conditions and threatened, among other claims.

Attorneys Kristin Hoffman of Indiana Legal Services and David Frank of Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic announced the rulings in a press release. They represented Enrique Gonzales Leiva and eight other farmworkers in a class-action against Windy Prairie Farm, its owner Keith Clute and manager Shawn Nower.

The defendants were ordered in a Jan. 29 default ruling to pay $460,972 in total damages divided roughly evenly between the nine farmworkers. Damages included more than $203,000 in punitive damages, more than $118,000 on emotional distress damages, more than $84,000 in economic damages and more than $52,000 in liquidated damages.

The court ruled the workers were unpaid for work they provided at the Benton County produce farm from June through August of 2019 and faced threats of harm after a worker reported the conditions to the Department of Labor. The damages award includes that pay plus liquidated damages.

The farm and its operators were found to have breached the Fair Labor Standards Act and the workers’ employment contract and to have violated the forced labor provisions of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPA) and the Agricultural Worker Protection Act. Northern District of Indiana Judge Robert L. Miller Jr. also awarded plaintiff attorney fees to be determined later.

“Unfortunately, agriculture is a high-risk industry for human trafficking,” Hoffman said. “This case sets an important precedent that force, fraud, or coercion on employment of workers is illegal and will not be tolerated in Indiana courts.”

Windy Prairie, Clute and Nower were not represented by counsel in the suit. Windy Prairie did not reply to an email message seeking comment on the judgment and the underlying complaint.

With the exception of one worker who was an American citizen, the farmworkers were Mexican citizens who entered the country legally in 2019 as H-2A visa holders on a contract to work at Windy Prairie Farm. Plaintiffs’ attorneys said the workers routinely worked long hours but were paid little or nothing and were never reimbursed for pre-employment travel or related expenses.

“Throughout their time working for Windy Prairie Farm, the plaintiffs were housed in overcrowded and abysmal living conditions and threatened with serious harm if they stopped working,” the attorneys said.

The workers had been hired under a job order approved through the Indiana Department of Workforce Development that provided at least 40 hours per week at an hourly rate not less than $13.26 per hour, free housing, meals and other terms. But the workers also as a condition of hire were required by Windy Farms to pay the farm to cover visa, hotel, travel expenses and other costs, a magistrate judge concluded in findings adopted by the court.

“At one point, Plaintiffs were forced to sleep on the floor of a refrigerated storage unit,” Magistrate Judge Joshua Kolar found. “Even after being moved to a motel, Plaintiffs did not have enough beds and were forced to share a bed or sleep on the floor … The motel lacked adequate kitchen facilities and Defendants failed to provide Plaintiffs with meals, forcing Plaintiffs to go hungry, ration their food, and eventually rely on humanitarian assistance from the Mexican Consulate.”

Among other damages, attorneys said, the court ordered an award of $200 per plaintiff for each day spent on the farm “for emotional distress resulting from Clute’s repeated threats of retaliation,” including allegations that he threatened to strangle the person who complained to the DOL.

“There’s still much work to be done to address human trafficking across Indiana,” said Frank. “But this case is an important example of justice for workers currently facing labor abuse, afraid or unsure of how or where to seek help. We’re here, and we urge you to reach out.”

Frank urged those in need to visit the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault & Human Trafficking or call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888.

The case in the Hammond Division of the Indiana Northern District is Enrique Gonzales Leiva, et al. v. Keith Clute, Shawn Nower, and Windy Prairie Farm, LLC, 4:19-cv-87.

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