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Fourth Circuit Holds CoreCivic Immigration Detainees in New Mexico Not “Employees” Under FLSA

A panel of judges in the Fourth Circuit agreed with the dismissal of an appeal brought by former ICE detainees held by CoreCivic at their Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, New Mexico. The ruling was released March 5, 2021 in a case first filed in 2019.

Former ICE detainees who worked in the “voluntary” work program at the Cibola facility brought a federal lawsuit alleging they were employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and New Mexico Minimum Wage Act (NMMWA). They claimed they were not paid a fair wage and that CoreCivic was “unjustly enriched” by employing them.

Importantly, the parties agreed that the NMMWA should be interpreted in accordance with the FLSA and the unjust enrichment claim depended upon the success of their FLSA claim.

CoreCivic filed a motion to dismiss which the court granted after determining that the FLSA did not apply to immigration detainees because they were not “employees.” Minimum wage was not at issue in the lawsuit.

The detainees were represented in their appeal by attorneys Joseph M. Sellers, Michael Hancock, and Stacy N. Cammarano of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll in Washington, D.C., and Robert S. Libman of Miner Barnhill & Gallard in Chicago.

The Fourth Circuit determined that the sole question was whether the detainees were “employees” under the FLSA. It held that “persons in custodial detention—such as appellants—are not in an employer-employee relationship, but in a detainer-detainee relationship that falls outside that paradigm” regardless of whether they are being paid for work. The district court relied upon the decision in Harker v. State Use Industries, 990 F.2d 131, 133 (4th Cir. 1993), which found that a prisoner who worked in the prison’s graphic print shop was not covered by FLSA because the conditions of his employment differ from the traditional free labor market.

It noted that every circuit that had addressed the issue—ten of them—refused to expand the FLSA to custodial detentions. The Fifth Circuit had directly addressed the issue of ICE detainees and determined that the FLSA did not apply to them. Alvarado Guevara v. I.N.S., 902 F.2d 394, 396 (5th Cir. 1990). Therefore, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal. On April 2, 2021, the court denied a petition for rehearing en banc. See: Ndambi v. CoreCivic Inc., 990 F.3d 369 (4th Cir. 2021). The case seems to have been a dead bang loser from the moment it was filed seeking relief under the FLSA. 

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Related legal case

Ndambi v. CoreCivic Inc.