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Second Circuit: Requiring Pretrial Detainees to Perform Forced Labor Unconstitutional; $15,000 Settlement on Remand

Second Circuit: Requiring Pretrial Detainees to Perform Forced Labor Unconstitutional; $15,000 Settlement on Remand

by Matt Clarke

On August 3, 2012, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held it is unconstitutional to force a pretrial detainee to perform labor other than that associated with personal housekeeping chores.

Finbar Patrick McGarry was arrested in Vermont in connection with a domestic dispute; he was denied bond and incarcerated for six months as a pretrial detainee at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF). The charges against him were later dismissed.

While held at CRCF, McGarry was allegedly required to work in the laundry for up to fourteen hours a day, three days a week. The work took place in hot, unsanitary conditions and he was compelled to handle prisoners’ soiled clothing without access to gloves, hand-cleaning products or a toilet. McGarry repeatedly objected to being forced to work and complained about the conditions. He also alleged that the work caused him to contract a painful staph infection on his neck that resulted in a series of recurring lesions.

McGarry was allegedly threatened with disciplinary action and placement “in the hole,” which meant being locked up 23 hours a day and the use of shackles, should he refuse to work. He was also told that even minor disciplinary action could lengthen the amount of time it would take for him to be released once sentenced.

McGarry filed a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal district court alleging that the Vermont Department of Corrections and CRCF officials violated his Thirteenth Amendment right to be free from slavery or involuntary servitude. The court dismissed his suit on the grounds that, as a matter of law, “being forced to work in the laundry was ‘nothing like the slavery that gave rise to the enactment of [the] Amendment,’” and that “any other outcome would ‘trivialize the pain and anguish that the Thirteenth Amendment sought to remedy.’” McGarry appealed.

Accepting all factual allegations in the complaint as true, the Second Circuit held that the term “involuntary servitude” in the Thirteenth Amendment meant it was intended to bar anything other than voluntary labor, not only chattel slavery. The appellate court also held that the Amendment applied to pretrial detainees and that the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity.

The Court of Appeals acknowledged there was an exception to the Thirteenth Amendment for work associated with personal housekeeping tasks performed by pretrial detainees, but rejected the defendants’ claim that being forced to labor in the laundry was this type of work because it involved McGarry doing other prisoners’ laundry, not merely his own.

“McGarry’s allegations state a claim under the Thirteenth Amendment. He alleges that his work in the prison laundry was compelled and maintained by the use and threatened use of physical and legal coercion,” the Second Circuit wrote. Therefore, the district court’s order of dismissal was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: McGarry v. Pallito, 687 F.3d 505 (2d Cir. 2012).

Following remand, the district court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss for failure to allege physical injury under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, though several individual defendants were dismissed due to lack of personal involvement. The parties agreed to settle the case for $15,000, and subsequently filed a stipulation of dismissal with the court on February 6, 2014. See: McGarry v. Pallito, U.S.D.C. (D. Vt.), Case No. 1:09-cv-00128-jgm-jmc.


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Related legal cases

McGarry v. Pallito

McGarry v. Pallito