$14.3 Million in Costs, Attorney Fees and Interest Awarded Against GEO Group in Suits for Not Paying Minimum Wage to Immigrant Detainee Workers in Washington
Brings total the firm is ordered to pay to $37.6 million
by Matt Clarke
On December 14, 2021, a Washington federal court issued additional orders in lawsuits against Florida-based private prison operator GEO Group for failing to pay immigration detainees the state-mandated minimum wage, adding over $14.3 million to the firm’s liability.
As previously reported by PLN, a federal jury in October 2021 found GEO Group liable under the state Minimum Wage Act (MWA) for $17,297,063.05 in back payments to immigrant detainees forced to work for $1 per hour, plus another $5,950,340 in unjust profits the firm was ordered to turn over to the state. [See: PLN, Dec. 2021, p.26.] GEO Group filed for remittitur of that award, but the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington denied that motion on December 8, 2021. See: Nwauzor v. GEO Grp., Inc., 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 235308 (W.D. Wash.).
The award by the Court five days later makes GEO Group liable for another $6,250,320.99 in attorney fees and costs to the prevailing parties, the state of Washington and members of the immigrant class regardless of the outcome of any appeal.
After an initial mistrial and a second trial in which plaintiffs prevailed, the cases were severed and the plaintiffs in each action separately sought attorney fees and costs.
The immigration detainees were represented by four law firms, each of which claimed an amount in “lodestar” attorney fees, defined as the number of hours reasonably expended multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate.
Schroeter Goldmark & Bender (SGB) in Seattle claimed $1,047,921.20, based on hourly rates between $300 and $550 for attorneys Adam Berger, Jamal Whitehead, Lindsay Halm, Rebecca J. Roe, Carson Phillips-Spotts, Page Ulrey and Kelli Carson, who ranged in experience from 6 to over 30 years, plus paralegals at $170 per hour;
Law Offices of R. Andrew Fee in Nashville claimed $147,012.50, basing its $475 hourly request on his 10 years of experience;
Menter Immigration Law PLLC in Seattle claimed $33,355.00, based on Monica Menter’s requested $350 hourly for her 20 years of experience; and
Open Sky Law PLLC in Kent, Washington, claimed $61,412.60, based on Devin Theriot-Orr’s requested $450 hourly for his 20 years of experience.
The state requested hourly fees of $320 to $417 for Assistant Attorneys General Marsha Chien, La Rond Baker, Andrea Brenneke, Lane Polozola and Patricia Marquez, whose experience ranged from 10 to 30 years. It also asked for $136 per hour for a paralegal and $191 per hour for an investigator. The Court found these lodestar rates reasonable.
GEO Group contested whether it should pay attorney fees associated with the mistrial, conferences between state- and class-attorneys, and a focus group. But the Court found the fees reasonable and noted that preparation for the first trial could not be reasonably separated from that for the retrial.
The Court applied a 10% multiplier to the class attorneys’ fees due to the difficulty of the case, the skill of the attorneys, the acceptance of a contingency fee, and the results obtained. The state did not request a multiplier.
The Court reduced the class-attorneys’ costs claim of $183,916.67 by $6,067.23, after ruling that the cost of equipment used for Zoom calls and conferences should not be awarded. Similarly, the court nixed the state’s claim for costs to rent Zoom equipment, allowing $191,398.07 in total costs.
Unique to the state’s case, the Court decided that its claim of unjust enrichment was related to a claim for lost wages so as to justify an award of attorney fees under the Minimum Wage Act and the Wage Payment Collection Act, RCW 49.48.030. It also held that the state was entitled to greater attorney fees because it had additional discovery burdens and had to litigate in the Ninth Circuit when the class attorneys did not.
Thus, GEO Group was ordered to pay the class attorneys $1,596,520.87 and the state $4,653,800.12 in attorney fees and costs, even if it appeals the cases. See: Nwauzor v. GEO Grp., Inc., 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 238949 (W.D. Wash.) and Washington v. GEO Grp., Inc., 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 238987 (W.D. Wash.).
The firm was also ordered to pay pre-judgment interest on the plaintiff’s damage award, in a decision reached on December 8, 2021. That added another $8,087,663.57 to the firm’s liability, a figure which the Court said would continue to grow at the annual statutory rate of 0.14% from November 2, 2021. See: Nwauzor v. GEO Grp., Inc., 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 235292 (W.D. Wash.).
That brought the total award against the firm to $37,585,387.61. GEO Group filed an appeal to the $23.3 million jury verdict with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on January 25, 2022. That appeal is still pending as we go to press. See: Washington v. GEO Grp., Inc., USCA (9th Cir.), Case No. 22-35027.
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Related legal cases
Washington v. GEO Grp., Inc.
|Cite||USCA (9th Cir.), Case No. 22-35027|
|Level||Court of Appeals|
Nwauzor v. GEO Grp., Inc.
|Cite||2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 235308 (W.D. Wash.)|
Nwauzor v. GEO Grp., Inc.
|Cite||2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 238949 (W.D. Wash.)|