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Former Immigration Detainee Awarded $100,001 Against CSC/Esmor, Plus $137,808 in Attorney’s Fees and Expenses

A federal jury has awarded a former detainee $100,001 against a private company that operated a New Jersey detention center for the U.S. government. The jury found for the plaintiff on her negligent supervision and Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) claims, but rejected her Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) claim. Following the verdict the district court awarded $137,808.04 in attorney’s fees and expenses.

As civil war raged in Somalia in 1994, armed men burst into the home of 24-year-old Hawa Abdi Jama, shooting her father and two brothers to death. She was stabbed with a bayonet and one of her ears was torn off. She survived the attack and fled the country.

While in a Kenyan refuge camp, Jama obtained an airplane ticket to the United States.
She used the ticket, hoping for a better life, but when the plane touched down on American soil Jama was taken into custody. She was eventually confined at an Elizabeth, New Jersey detention center where immigrants were held while awaiting decisions on their asylum applications.

At the time of Jama’s confinement, the Elizabeth facility was operated for the federal government by Esmor Correctional Services (Esmor); the company later changed its name to Correctional Services Corp., which was acquired by GEO Group – the nation’s second largest private prison firm – in 2005.

Conditions at the facility were deplorable. Detainees described being routinely beaten; fed rotten food; denied basic supplies such as toothbrushes, toilet paper and sanitary napkins; and forced to use toilets and sinks overflowing with feces and vomit. Some were subjected to humiliating strip and digital body cavity searches. “I felt like I wasn’t human,” Jama testified. In 1995, hundreds of detainees rioted over the poor conditions, causing the government to cancel Esmor’s contract. [See: PLN, Sept. 1995, p.17].

Attorneys and students of the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic (Rutgers) partnered with the New York law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, L.L.P. to sue Esmor on behalf of Jama and other Elizabeth detainees. The lawsuit alleged violations of the ATCA and RFRA, plus several negligent hiring, supervision, training and retention claims.

As previously reported in PLN, the case was groundbreaking because it was the first case to hold that a private company could be sued for monetary damages under the ATCA for human rights violations committed on American soil. See: Jama v. U.S. INS, 343 F.Supp.2d 338 (D.NJ 2004).

The lawsuit was certified as a class action and the defendants settled with most of the detainees in August 2005 for $2.5 million; about $1 million of that amount went to attorney fees. [See: PLN, Sept. 2006, p.26]. Jama and her eight co-defendants opted out of the class action to pursue separate claims. When their case went to trial in Sept. 2007, all of the opt-out plaintiffs except Jama settled with Esmor for a total of $560,000. Two of the detainees were paid $100,000 each, four received $80,000 each and two were paid $20,000 each. Jama, however, refused to settle.

During the almost six-week trial, Penny Venetis, the Rugers University Law School professor who represented Jama and the other opt-out detainees, argued that Esmor cut corners for profits. She urged the jury to award Jama punitive damages to “send a message” to Esmor and prevent it from abusing other helpless immigration detainees.

Defense counsel countered that the abuse allegations were exaggerated and Jama’s psychological harm had occurred in Somalia, not at the detention center. “The poor woman suffered much more in her native country than in the detention facility,” argued Esmor attorney Larry Reich. “She came here as a damaged person and we have empathy for her, but that does not mean we are responsible under our judicial system.”

On November 13, 2007, after two days of deliberations, the federal jury rejected Jama’s ATCA claim but found in her favor on the RFRA claim and “her claim of negligent hiring, training, supervision, and/or retention of guards against Esmor.” The jury awarded Jama $1 in compensatory damages for the RFRA violation and $100,000 in compensatory damages on the negligence claim.

Following the verdict, Jama, who is now a U.S. citizen residing in Ohio, declined to comment. Venetis was disappointed that the jury rejected the ATCA claim but glad it had awarded damages.

“I think it’s critical for the public to know that when corporations violate human rights they will be called to the task, and we have called them to task,” said Venetis. “The $100,000 is not peanuts.”

On March 5, 2008 the district court awarded Jama attorney’s fees and expenses totaling $137,808.04, with $26,539.50 in fees and $2,668.54 in expenses allocated to Debevoise & Plimpton, L.L.P. and Rutgers recovering fees of $108,600. The court found the fee request was “supported in meticulous detail” and rejected the defendants’ challenge to the application, stating, “Defendants overlook the context in which this fee award was granted. Defendants had engaged in spoliation of evidence in connection with an important expert witness in this extraordinarily complex case which consumed ten years of motions and discovery.”

The court examined the time sheets and fee application and concluded that as “extensive those labors were,” in the context of this unusual case they were reasonably necessary.

The district court denied Esmor’s post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law on March 17, 2008 in an order that detailed the complex history of this case and the many abuses inflicted on immigration detainees at the Elizabeth facility, which is now operated by Corrections Corp. of America. Esmor has appealed the jury verdict. See: Jama v. Esmor, U.S.D.C., D NJ, Case No. 97-3093 (DRD); 2008 WL 724337.

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Related legal case

Jama v. Esmor