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Third Circuit Revives Forced-Labor Claims of Jailed Pennsylvania Child Support Debtors

by Matt Clarke

On February 8, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reinstated claims by Pennsylvania child support debtors jailed for civil contempt, who argued they were unfairly forced to perform unsafe and nearly uncompensated labor at a privately-operated, county-owned recycling center.

William Burrell, Jr. was jailed in Lackawanna County in 2014 for civil contempt after failing to make court-ordered child support payments. He qualified for the jail’s work-release program, which would allow him to pay off his child support debt and be released from jail rather than serving the entire length of his civil contempt sentence. However, the county had a policy requiring anyone seeking work-release to first work half of their sentence at the recycling center owned by the county’s Solid Waste Management Authority (SWMA).

SWMA is operated by a private company, the Lakawanna County Recycling Center, Inc. (LCRR). The firm paid laborers $5 per 8-hour work day – 63¢ per hour – for sorting trash in allegedly dangerous and disgusting conditions, including denying the workers portions of sack meals sent from the jail if they didn’t perform quickly enough.

Burrell filed a pro se federal civil rights lawsuit in September 2014, alleging the work at the recycling center amounted to forced labor below minimum wage, in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment; the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), 18 U.S.C. §§ 1589, 1595; the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(l)(c); the Racketeering-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961(1), (2) and (4); and Pennsylvania’s Minimum Wage Act (PMWA), 43 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. § 333.104(a.l).

The federal court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania dismissed the complaint before service of process. Burrell appealed, and the Third Circuit reinstated the TVPA and Thirteenth Amendment claims. See: Burrell v. Loungo, 750 F.App’x 149 (3d Cir. 2018). On remand, Burrell secured counsel from Denver attorney Juno Turner of Towards Justice to represent him and two additional plaintiffs, Joshua Huzzard and Dampsey Stuckey.

On their behalf, an amended complaint was filed alleging violations of the same laws. The district court again granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss, and Burrell and his fellow plaintiffs appealed, with the additional aid of attorneys from the Georgetown University Law Center Appellate Courts Immersion Center and Handley Farah & Anderson in Washington, D.C, as well as Marielle R. Macher of the Community Justice Project in Harrisburg. Numerous organizations also filed amicus briefs.

Third Circuit Overrules
District Court

The Third Circuit began by finding that the claims were not barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine; although Plaintiffs’ claims may deny the conclusions by the state court that they were able to pay the child support arrears at the time of the state trial, the Court said, those claims “do not require review and rejection of the orders in which those conclusions were reached.”

Issue preclusion also did not apply, the Court continued, because Plaintiffs’ factual allegations showed that circumstances had changed since the state court orders were issued, making them no longer capable of paying the child support arrears.

Further, their claims that no one would voluntarily work at the recycling center on 1,000 days separating recyclables on conveyor belts – suffering skin rashes and frequent wounds from sharp pieces of glass, while vomiting from the stench and unable to use the toilet – are claims of physically or legally coerced labor. Thus, the district court “erred by dismissing plaintiffs’ Thirteenth Amendment and TVPA claims based on their failure to allege changed circumstances” and “not seek[ing] modification of their support orders.”

However, the claims do not amount to a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment, which in modern days has been “limited to labor camps, isolated religious sects, or forced confinement,” the Court said, citing Steirer v. Bethlehem Area Sch. Dist., 987 F.2d 989 (3d Cir. 1993), and Zavala v. Wal Mart Stores, Inc., 691 F.3d 527 (3d Cir. 2012).

The Court held that “conditioning plaintiffs’ access to the work release program (which plaintiffs allege they needed to free themselves) on a period of nearly free, grueling labor at the Recycling Center is an abuse of law or legal process under the TVPA.”

“That is so because it is a use of the work release program in a manner for which it was not designed [as stated in 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. § 9803], in order to pressure plaintiffs to work at the Center,” the Court explained. This meant plaintiffs were similar to immigration detainees unlawfully forced to labor for TVPA purposes, as held in Gonzales v. CoreCivic, Inc. 986 F.3d 53 (5th Cir. 2021). Thus, the TVPA claims against the County, SWMA and LCRR should not have been dismissed. However, similar claims against LCRR’s owners were tenuous and properly dismissed.

The Court held that the RICO claims against LCRR were based on the TVPA claims and should not have been dismissed. However, the RICO claims against the firm’s owners were properly dismissed because the TVPA claims against them were properly dismissed, leaving no predicate offense.

Evidence of Unjust Enrichment

Because Plaintiffs were supervised by the County’s jail guards while working at the recycling plant, all three entities – the County, SWMA and LCRR – shared the profits of their labor, the Court said. So all three were Plaintiffs’ joint employer. Further, Plaintiffs did not have the same legal status as prisoners because they had not been convicted of a crime. “Plaintiffs’ work, as alleged, sits on a razor-thin line between involuntary and voluntary, and whether it falls to either side should be decided on the facts. And no one can say that not-convicted plaintiffs’ work belongs to the County or that the Thirteenth Amendment excludes their labor from the prohibition on involuntary servitude.”

This meant that Fl.SA, PMWA and unjust enrichment claims against the three entities should not have been dismissed. However, the Court indicated that plaintiffs could not prevail on both the TVPA claims, which allege involuntary labor, and the FLSA claims, which only apply to voluntary labor, because they are incompatible. However, Plaintiffs could present both theories and let a fact-finder determine whether the labor was voluntary or not.

Therefore, the Court affirmed dismissal of all claims except those under TVPA, FLSA, PMWA, and the unjust enrichment claims against the three entities, as well as the RICO claim against LCRR. The lower court’s dismissal of those claims was reversed, and the case remanded to the district court. See: Burrell v. Staff, F.4th (3d Cir. 2023).

The case has now returned to the district court, where Burrell and his fellow plaintiffs continue to be represented by their counsel. PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Burrell v. Loungo, USDC (M.D.Pa.), Case No. 3:14-cv-01891.

The servitude forced on Burrell seems especially egregious given he has never been convicted of a crime. However, tens of thousands of his fellow Pennsylvanians held by the state Department of Corrections (DOC) also toil for slave wages. That’s how DOC Secretary George M. Little was able to tell state prisoners at the end of 2022 that he was “happy to report” they would get a 20% pay hike in 2023 – one that still leaves them earning 50 cents per hour or less. The state’s minimum wage is the same as the federal minimum, $7.25 per hour. The Democratic majority in the state House led passage of a bill on June 21, 2023, raising the state’s hourly minimum wage to $15 by 2026. HB 1500 now goes to the GOP-dominated state senate, where a companion bill, SB 743, was sponsored by a member of the leadership team, Sen. Dan Laughlin (R-Erie). But a spokesperson for his caucus, Kate Flessner, swatted away any such “artificial minimum wage increases.”

Additional sources: Reason, Spotlight PA