Court awards $240M to disabled workers in a groundbreaking Iowa case.
It took less than eight hours of deliberation for an Iowa jury to rule in favor of the 32 disabled men who worked for a now-defunct turkey supplier.
Henry’s Turkey Service was ordered to pay $240 million in damages–$7.5 million to each worker–after the jury heard evidence of discrimination and abuse by the company against its disabled employees. The company was sued in federal court for unlawful harassment and discriminatory employment conditions at the company’s labor camp in Atalissa, Iowa.
“The evidence is these men were treated like property,” said Robert Canino, one of the attorneys at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) who helped try the case. “These men are people. They are individuals.” He said Henry’s had deliberately chosen not to provide the men with disability services, health insurance or access to Iowa Medicaid – a move that resulted in some of the men not being seen by doctors or dentists for years.
These 32 men are only a few of the hundreds of disabled workers that the company sent from Texas to Iowa over a period of 40 years. The men worked in a West Liberty meat-processing plant for 41 cents an hour and were housed in a 100-year-old converted schoolhouse. The operation was shut down in February 2009, after The Des Moines Register asked state officials about conditions inside the bunkhouse and the company’s lack of a license to care for disabled adults. Although the Atalissa labor camp operated for decades, federal law restricted the EEOC’s claim to only the final two years of operation, limiting both the nature of the claims that could be made as well as the number of workers who could seek compensation.
“The amount of this jury award is phenomenal in assigning responsibility for all of the wrongdoing that took place, and it also sends a message that this sort of conduct deserves more than a slap on the hand,” Dr. Sue Gant, expert witness for the EEOC, said. “But how do you put a value on decades of lost opportunity? You can’t recapture those years… These men were hidden away for decades, and for others’ personal gain. These were humans who were treated like cattle — like company property, like just another source of income for the company.”
Steven Schwartz, a disability rights attorney, said that one of the biggest challenge in discrimination cases is convincing a jury that people with disabilities have just as much value as everyone else. The jury’s decision represents “a groundbreaking advancement in that it demonstrates that the men have value that is equal to people without disabilities,” according to Gant.
Company president Kenneth Henry testified that over 45 years he had sent over 1,500 disabled men to labor camps in seven different states and was unaware of any abuse or neglect of the men, other than two incidents that were reportedly witnessed by plant officials at West Liberty Foods, where the men worked; however, evidence produced during the trial indicated bunkhouse supervisor Randy Neubauer had one of the bunkhouse residents handcuffed to his bed at night and that some of the men were punished for violating company rules by being taken to garage next to the bunkhouse where they were forced to walk around a pole while they were hit, kicked, and screamed at by their caretakers.
“It’s stunning,” Schwartz said. “I think this verdict sends an incredibly powerful message to jurors all over the country. And of course it sends an equally powerful message to the people who cause this sort of harm. This is also an extraordinary testament to the EEOC and its attorneys, Robert Canino in particular, that they are willing to stand up for people with mental disabilities. They represent the best our government can be.”
Photo: AP/John Schultz