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Federal Court Dismisses GEO Group’s Defenses in Lawsuit Over Pay for Immigrant Detainees

by Matt Clarke

Undocumented immigrants in the United States often face wage theft when their employers underpay or refuse to pay them for their labor. A federal class-action lawsuit filed by the Attorney General for the State of Washington has highlighted how such workers continue to face wage theft even when in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). [See: PLN, Dec. 2018, p.20; June 2018, p.38].

The suit sought the state minimum wage for ICE detainees held at the 1,575-bed Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, who were being paid $1.00 a day to labor for the facility’s operator, The GEO Group. On May 13, 2019, a federal district court granted partial summary judgment to the state and dismissed several affirmative defenses raised by GEO.

In 2017, Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed the lawsuit seeking to enforce Washington’s Minimum Wage Act, which requires workers to be paid at least $12 an hour. GEO was paying detainees who participated in ICE’s Voluntary Work Program (VWP) just $1.00 per day. VWP workers “collect and distribute laundry, prepare and serve food, clean, paint interior walls, and use electric shears to cut hair.”

ICE contracts with GEO Group to house immigrant detainees at the Northwest Detention Center. The contract requires GEO to offer the VWP, but also requires the company to comply with “[a]pplicable federal, state, and local labor laws and codes.” In its suit, the state claimed that that provision encompasses the Minimum Wage Act, and GEO was unjustly enriched by ignoring the Act as it applies to VWP workers. The state requested an order declaring GEO was subject to the Act and requiring it to disgorge its unjust enrichment – likely millions of dollars – plus an injunction against the company paying detainees less than minimum wage.

In response, GEO Group asserted 13 affirmative defenses, most of which had previously been considered and dismissed by the court. The state filed a motion for partial summary judgment on the remaining affirmative defenses and GEO moved to defer or strike the state’s motion for partial summary judgment.

The district court ruled that GEO had sufficient time for discovery during the time the case had been pending, so a delay for additional discovery was not warranted. Further, the company had failed to show what facts it believed could be additionally discovered. The motion to delay or dismiss was denied.

GEO Group’s remaining affirmative defenses of laches, unclean hands, and failure to join ICE and the state’s Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) were untenable, the court held.

Laches could not be asserted because state law enforcement actions are not subject to laches. In addition, the delay between the state’s discovery of the wage violations and its filing of the lawsuit was three years, which was not an unreasonable delay – especially when there is no statute of limitations. Finally, GEO failed to show it had suffered injury due to the delay.

In asserting the state had unclean hands, GEO focused on the fact that the state paid less than minimum wage to its own prisoners. The district court held the state’s wages for prison labor were irrelevant and, “most importantly, the State’s payment to inmates is based on statutory authority, which is not the case with GEO’s payments to detainees.”

The court further found that the affirmative defense of the state’s failure to join ICE and L&I should be dismissed because GEO Group had failed to show that either ICE or L&I was an indispensable party to the case.

Therefore, the district court denied GEO’s motion to defer or dismiss the state’s motion for summary judgment, and granted partial summary judgment to the state on GEO’s affirmative defenses.

On August 6, 2019, the court issued another order rejecting GEO Group’s argument that federal law preempted Washington’s Minimum Wage Act.

“GEO cannot avoid accountability by hiding behind its contract with ICE,” Attorney General Ferguson said in a statement. “Today’s ruling means GEO can no longer argue that federal law prevents it from complying with Washington law. I look forward to ensuring this multi-billion dollar corporation complies with Washington law and either pays detainees minimum wage or hires workers from the community to perform the non-security functions at the Northwest Detention Center.”

The case remains pending. See: State of Washington v. The GEO Group, Inc., U.S.D.C (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 3:17-cv-05806-RJB; 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 80306. 

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Additional sources: seattletimes.com, heraldnet.com

Related legal case

State of Washington v. The GEO Group, Inc.