$240 Million Jury Award in Long-Term Discrimination and Harassment of Workers with Intellectual Disabilities

 
Thursday, May 2, 2013
 

A Davenport, Iowa jury awarded the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) damages totaling $240 million - the largest verdict in the federal agency's history - for disability discrimination and severe abuse.

The jury agreed with the EEOC that Hill County Farms, doing business as Henry's Turkey Service subjected a group of 32 men with intellectual disabilities to severe abuse and discrimination for a period between 2007 and 2009, after 20 years of similar mistreatment.

The company is based in Goldthwaite, Texas, but the work and abuse occurred in West Liberty and Atalissa, Iowa.  The jury awarded each of the men $2 million in punitive damages and $5.5 million in compensatory damages.  This verdict follows a September 2012 order from the district court judge that Henry's Turkey pay the men $1.3 million for unlawful disability-based wage discrimination, thus making the total judgment $241.3 million.

EEOC presented evidence to the jury that Henry's Turkey exploited these workers, whose jobs involved eviscerating turkeys, because their intellectual disabilities made them particularly vulnerable and unaware of the extent to which their legal rights were being denied. The affected men lived in Muscatine County, Iowa, where they worked for 20 years as part of a contract between Henry's Turkey and West Liberty Foods, an Iowa turkey processing plant.

The EEOC presented evidence that for years and years the owners and staffers of Henry's Turkey subjected the workers to abusive verbal and physical harassment; restricted their freedom of movement; and imposed other harsh terms and conditions of employment such as requiring them to live in deplorable and sub-standard living conditions, and failing to provide adequate medical care when needed.

Verbal abuses included frequently referring to the workers as "retarded," "dumb ass" and "stupid."  Class members reported acts of physical abuse including hitting, kicking, at least one case of handcuffing, and forcing the disabled workers to carry heavy weights as punishment.  The Henry's Turkey supervisors, also the workers' purported caretakers, were often dismissive of complaints of injuries or pain.

Such abuse violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, including intellectual disabilities, in terms and conditions of employment and wages and bars disability-based harassment.  The EEOC filed its lawsuit (No. 3:11-cv-00041-CRW -TJS, in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa) after first attempting to settle the case through its conciliation process.

In support of its case and to detail the human story for each of the victims at trial, the EEOC relied upon a nationally recognized expert in the field of care and treatment of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Dr. Sue Gant.  Social workers from the Iowa Department of Human Services, former DHS manager Denise Gonzalez, and the staff of a disability support services provider, Exceptional Persons Inc. of Waterloo, Iowa, also provided in-depth personal perspectives with regard to the victims and the nature of the abuses suffered.

In addition to the EEOC's disability-based harassment and discrimination verdict, the EEOC earlier won a $1.3 million wage discrimination judgment when Senior U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Wolle found that, rather than the total of $65 dollars per month Henry's Turkey paid to the disabled workers while contracted to work on an evisceration line at the plant, the employees should have been compensated at the average wage of $11-12 per hour, reflecting pay typically earned by workers without intellectual disabilities who performed the same or similar work.  The EEOC's wage claims for each worker ranged from $28,000 to $45,000 in lost income over the course of their last two years before the Henry's Turkey Service operation was shut down in February 2009.

Protecting vulnerable workers from disparate pay, harassment, and other discriminatory policies is one of the priorities identified in the EEOC's Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP).

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