Experts: $240M judgment for disabled men 'stunning'
May 1, 2013 Written by; Clark Kauffman, The Des Moines Register
In a decision that legal experts are calling "stunning," an Iowa jury this morning awarded $240 million to the 32 mentally disabled men who faced decades of discrimination and abuse while working for Henry's Turkey Service in Atalissa.
When jurors announced the judgment, after less than eight hours of deliberation, Sherri Brown, the sister of one of the 32 men, broke down in tears inside the Davenport courtroom.
"I totally lost it," she said later. "I wanted the jury to make a statement so that my brother Keith and all of those men would know that someone had heard them. And if this isn't a statement, I don't know what is."
The $240 million judgment reflects $2 million in punitive damages for each of the 32 men, plus $5.5 million in compensatory damages for each of the men.
Steven Schwartz, a disability rights attorney and former Harvard professor, said today's judgment will be heard across the nation.
"It's stunning," he said. "It's amazing. I'm almost incredulous. 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."
Schwartz, who is trying to obtain community-support services in Texas for five former bunkhouse residents, said one of the biggest challenge in discrimination cases is convincing a jury that people with disabilities have just as much value as everyone else.
Dr. Sue Gant, an expert witness who testified for the EEOC on the hardships suffered by the disabled workers, said the judgment represents "a groundbreaking advancement in that it demonstrates that the men have value that is equal to people without disabilities."
"I'm very pleased the jury made such a powerful statement," said Ruby Moore, a national disability rights advocate based in Georgia. "People around the country are absolutely aware of this case. It has unveiled some of the horrendous practices faced by people with disabilities."
Through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the 32 former employees of Henry’s had sued the company in federal court, alleging unlawful harassment and discriminatory employment conditions at the company’s labor camp in Atalissa.
Over a period of 40 years, Henry’s sent hundreds of disabled men from Texas to Iowa where they worked in a West Liberty meat-processing plant for 41 cents an hour. The men were housed in a 100-year-old Atalissa school building the company converted to a bunkhouse. 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 can 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," Gant 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."
The verdict came one day after jurors in the EEOC case heard closing arguments from both the government and from Henry's attorney, David Scieszinski of Wilton.
Canino, the EEOC attorney who represented the 32 men in court, had asked jurors to compensate those "valiant men" for what he called their "broken hearts, broken spirits, shattered dreams and, ultimately, their broken lives." He characterized their mistreatment as pervasive and unrelenting.
"The evidence is these men were treated like property," Canino told the jury. "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. Canino said that was by design.
"If the eyes of Iowa saw what was happening, if the eyes of Iowa got inside that bunkhouse ... If anybody ever caught on to that, the party was going to be over," he told jurors.
Scieszinski told jurors to be mindful of the fact that the EEOC didn't call any of the 32 men as witnesses and had opted instead to present as evidence "the feelings of a group of social workers."
He blamed the city of Atalissa -- which owned the bunkhouse and leased it to Henry's -- for conditions inside the building, which included a lack of central heat, fire-safety violations and cockroaches so numerous that one social worker said she could hear them in the walls.
"The city of Atalissa was responsible for maintaining that bunkhouse in habitable condition," he told jurors. "If there was any failure here, it was on their part."
He told jurors that Henry's provided "love and care" for the men, and said it was necessary for the men to live in the bunkhouse under the control of the company "for their own safety." He reminded them of an incident in which one of the men wandered away from the bunkhouse during a winter storm, froze to death and was found by a farmer the following spring.
"Think of that boy they found out laying in the fence row and how they didn't find him for six or seven months," Scieszinski told jurors.
Company president Kenneth Henry, 72, of Proctor, Texas, testified Monday that he 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.
He testified that over 45 years, Henry's sent 1,500 mentally disabled men to labor camps in seven states, including Iowa camps in Spirit Lake, Ellsworth and Atalissa. Despite the size of the operation, Henry said he never had a company policy manual and no one at the company ever owned a computer -- or had access to a computer -- to research support services available to the mentally disabled.
Evidence produced during the trial indicates bunkhouse supervisor Randy Neubauer had one of the bunkhouse residents handcuffed to his bed at night -- an allegation Neubauer denied when testifying. Also, an Iowa Department of Human Services social worker testified that evidence showed 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.
After the bunkhouse was shut down, the Labor Department won a $1.76 million judgment against the company for federal labor law violations. In a separate action, Iowa Workforce Development imposed a $1.2 million civil fine against Henry's for state labor law violations. Then, last year, the EEOC won the $1.3 million judgment for ADA wage violations, setting the stage for the current trial on issues of harassment and discrimination.