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Mistrial declared in case over GEO Group’s $1-a-day detainee pay

3 minute read

REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

  • Jury in first virtual class-action trial deadlocked on immunity issue
  • Washington AG, detainees opposed mistrial

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(Reuters) - A federal judge in Washington has declared a mistrial in a challenge to GEO Group Inc’s practice of paying immigrant detainees who participate in a work program $1 a day, after a jury deadlocked during three days of deliberations.

U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan in Tacoma on Thursday granted GEO's motion for a mistrial over the objections of the Washington Attorney General's office and a group of detainees.

GEO in its motion said the nine-person jury had been unable to come to a unanimous verdict on the company's claim that it was entitled to governmental immunity because it operated a detention center in Tacoma under a government contract.

The AG and the private plaintiffs in response said the jury may still be able to render a verdict on liability without deciding whether GEO was immune from the claims.

The three-week trial was conducted via Zoom, and marked the first time a federal court has held a virtual trial in a class-action case, according to court filings.

Jamal Whitehead of Schroeter Goldmark & Bender, the lead lawyer for the detainees, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Nor did GEO and its lead lawyer, Joan Mell of III Branches Law Firm.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson in a statement said the mistrial "allows us to re-try the claim again in front of a new jury."

GEO had pushed for an in-person trial. The company said virtual proceedings were inappropriate because the case involves thousands of detainees and hundreds of exhibits, and was too complex to be heard by a remote jury that could become distracted or have technical issues.

Florida-based GEO said that with COVID-19 vaccines being distributed across the country, an in-person trial could potentially take place in 2021.

In the class-action lawsuit, a group of detainees at the 1,575-bed facility said the company paid them $1 per day to clean, do laundry, wash dishes and staff a barber shop and library. Regulations adopted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2011 require private detention center operators to pay detainees at least $1 per day for their labor.

But the plaintiffs claimed GEO was using them as cheap labor instead of hiring workers to do the jobs. They said detainees who performed work were GEO's employees under state law because they were "engaged, suffered, or permitted to work," and were entitled to earn the minimum wage of $12 per hour.

The case was consolidated with a separate 2017 lawsuit by the state AG's office also claiming GEO was required to pay detainees the state minimum wage.

Washington's minimum wage law does not apply to state jails, but the AG and the private plaintiffs claim that GEO is not exempt because it is a private company holding people facing civil, not criminal, charges.

The cases are Washington v. GEO Group Inc and Nwauzor v. GEO Group Inc, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, Nos. 3:17-cv-05806, and 3:17-cv-05769.

For the private plaintiffs: Jamal Whitehead of Schroeter Goldmark & Bender

For the state: Marsha Chien and Andrea Brenneke of the Washington attorney general's office

For GEO: Joan Mell of III Branches Law Firm

Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.

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