Prison Officials Liable for Private Employer ADA Violations

Prison Officials Liable for Private Employer ADA Violations

By Mark Wilson

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held last September that prison officials are liable for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) committed by private employer contractors.

Arizona law requires state prisoners to work 40 hours per week. Most are employed in the Arizona Department of Corrections Work Incentive Pay Program (WIPP), earning from 10 to 50 cents per hour. Prisoners who work for Arizona Correctional Industries (ACI), which provides prison labor for private company contractors, earn significantly more.

One of those companies is Eurofresh, “America’s largest greenhouse operation,” which boasts that it can produce 200 million pounds of hydroponic tomatoes annually.

In July 2008, Arizona prisoner William W. Castle was hired by Eurofresh as a tomato picker, earning more than $2.25 an hour. He was required to push a 600-pound tomato cart and stand or walk during his entire seven-hour shift.

Castle soon began suffering ankle swelling and pain when he stood longer than two hours. Decades earlier, Castle had received a 20% service-connected disability rating for an ankle injury sustained in an Army parachute accident.

After a Eurofresh supervisor told Castle he would be fired for taking breaks to rest his ankle, Castle asked ACI and Eurofresh to be reassigned to a different position. His request was denied, and he was told his only option was to quit. Prison officials then moved Castle to a WIPP job in the motor pool, which paid only 50 cents an hour.

Castle filed suit against Eurofresh and state prison officials, claiming they had violated the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act by failing to accommodate his disability. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, and Castle appealed.

The Ninth Circuit reversed summary judgment to the prison officials, rejecting their argument that they lacked authority over Eurofresh employment decisions.

Following Armstrong v. Schwarzenegger, 622 F.3d 1058 (9th Cir. 2010) [PLN, Nov. 2011, p.28], the appellate court observed that government officials are liable for ADA violations committed by private contractors.

Since ACI admittedly contracted with Eurofresh to provide “benefits” to prisoners, including paid labor and vocational training, the Court of Appeals concluded that “one benefit State Defendants may not harvest is immunity for ADA violations: State Defendants are obligated to ensure that Eurofresh – like all other State contractors – complies with federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability.”

Noting that the en banc court in Hale v. Arizona, 993 F.2d 1387 (9th Cir. 1993) [PLN, Sept. 1993, p.8] had held that prisoners are not “employees” entitled to minimum wage under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Ninth Circuit found that “Castle is not Eurofresh’s employee under the ADA because his labor belongs to the State of Arizona.” Therefore, Eurofresh was not liable for its ADA violations and was entitled to summary judgment.

“Castle’s claims against Eurofresh were properly dismissed because Castle and Eurofresh were not in an employment relationship, and Eurofresh does not receive federal financial assistance. However, judgment was improperly granted to the State Defendants. The State Defendants are liable for disability discrimination committed by a contractor,” the Court of Appeals concluded.

“A profit-seeking firm that hires convicts at its own worksite should not be shielded from the costs of compliance with the ADA,” Circuit Judge Marsha S. Berzon wrote in a concurring opinion, encouraging reconsideration of Hale. “Permitting private employers to escape those costs while profiting from the use of prison labor markets undermines the enforcement of the statutory requirements generally by creating incentives for competing employers to shirk compliance with regard to non-prison labor – and thereby economically disadvantaging competitors of those employers using prison labor.”

Nevertheless, noting that precedent “forecloses consideration of such concerns,” Judge Berzon reluctantly concurred that Hale precludes a finding that Castle was an “employee” under federal law. Thus, his only remedy is against Arizona prison officials. See: Castle v. Eurofresh, 731 F.3d 901 (9th Cir. 2013).

The case remains pending on remand, with the Arizona Department of Corrections filing a renewed motion for summary judgment on April 14, 2014. Castle, who has been released from prison, is proceeding pro se.

(Published by Prison Legal News; used by permission)