The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) announced that it won what it describes as a “historic” verdict last week when an Iowa federal jury awarded $240 million to a group of intellectually disabled plant workers who were subjected to disability-based discrimination and harassment. The award is the largest in the agency’s history. The EEOC’s General Counsel, David Lopez, remarked that the verdict is “one of the EEOC’s finest moments in its ongoing efforts to combat employment discrimination.”
The lawsuit, EEOC v. Hill Country Farms Inc., was brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by 32 intellectually disabled workers who formerly worked at a turkey manufacturing plant in Muscatine County, Iowa. At trial, the EEOC presented evidence that the intellectually disabled workers were frequently called “retarded,” “dumb ass,” and “stupid.” The workers reported being hit, kicked, and forced to carry heavy weights as punishment. The workers were allegedly required to live in “deplorable and substandard” living conditions maintained by the Company and denied access to medical care. The EEOC told the jury that the vulnerable workers were treated “like property” rather than individuals with legitimate ADA-protected disabilities. The workers alleged that, for twenty years, they were paid significantly less than their non-disabled counterparts and subjected to physical and verbal abuse.
At the time of the plant’s closing in 2009, the workers earned $65 per month while their non-disabled counterparts were paid $11 to $12 per hour.
The $240 million jury award consisted of $7.5 million to each plaintiff – $5.5 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages. The award, however, is likely to be reduced pursuant to statutory caps limiting compensatory and punitive damages to $300,000 each. With regard to payment of back wages, the EEOC had previously secured a $1.3 million wage discrimination verdict for the same workers, which resulted in an award of $28,000-$45,000 per plaintiff.
“The verdict sends an important message that the conduct that occurred here is intolerable in this nation, and hopefully will help to restore dignity and acknowledge the humanity of the workers who were mistreated for so many years,” said EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien.
Some commentators expect the verdict to embolden the EEOC, which has faced a number of high-profile setbacks in recent years. While that remains to be seen, the verdict will, at the very least, be used by the agency when it urges Congress for increased enforcement funding.