PHOENIX — Arizona companies that hire inmate labor do not have to comply with federal laws protecting the disabled, federal appellate judges ruled Tuesday.
In a unanimous decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a prisoner's claim that Eurofresh, which grows tomatoes near Willcox, failed to accommodate his disability as required by federal statutes. Judge Milan Smith, writing for the court, said the actions of the company are irrelevant because the inmate is not their employee.
Smith said, though, the prisoner does have the right to sue the state because, technically speaking, he worked for them.
Tuesday's ruling provides important protections against such lawsuits for companies that contract with the state for inmate labor.
But Judge Marsha Berzon, while agreeing that's what the law says, expressed dismay at giving companies a free pass to ignore the law. She noted that the inmate worked for a private employer, off prison grounds, and under a compulsion of a sentence requiring that he work.
“The notion that prisoners who work for covered employers can never be ‘employees’ for purposes of federal employee-protective statutes undermines those statutes as applied to employees generally and misconstrues the reach of the ‘employee’ designation,” Berzon wrote.
Neither the Department of Corrections nor the Attorney General's Office would comment on the ruling.
The case involves William Castle, who was sentenced to a 10-year prison term on theft and fraud charges. State law requires all able-bodied inmates to “engage in hard labor for not less than 40 hours per week.”
Smith said most inmates satisfy this requirement by participating in the Work Incentive Pay Program at the Department of Corrections, generally earning from 10 to 50 cents an hour. But some inmates get significantly more through a separate inmate-labor program run by Arizona Correctional Industries, which contracts with private companies to provide them with workers.
One of those is Eurofresh, which describes itself as “America's largest greenhouse operation,” which can grow 200 million pounds of hydroponic tomatoes each year.
Castle, who began picking tomatoes for Eurofresh in July 2008, was required to be on his feet for the entire seven-hour shift and often had to push a 600 pound tomato cart.
He eventually said he began experiencing “intolerable pain and swelling” in his left ankle after working for two or more hours. That is the result of a serious ankle injury decades before during a parachute accident that occurred while Castle attended Army Airborne School.
Castle said a Eurofresh supervisor said he would be fired if he insisted on taking breaks, and he said a request to Eurofresh for a different job was rejected.
The result was that the Department of Corrections reassigned Castle to a job at the prison paying 50 cents an hour, versus the more than $2.25 he had made at Eurofresh. Castle then sued both Eurofresh and the state for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Smith said, though, Castle cannot sue Eurofresh.
“Castle is not Eurofresh's employee under the ADA because his labor belongs to the state of Arizona, which put him to work at Eurofresh in order to comply with its statutory obligations,” the judge wrote. He said there was no evidence that Eurofresh received federal financial assistance, either directly or indirectly, which might have allowed Castle to sue the firm.
The Department of Corrections and state government, however, are a different story.
Smith said the state is free to contract out prison labor and “likely reap numerous benefits from such arrangements.”
“But one benefit state defendants may not harvest is immunity from ADA violations,” the judge wrote. Smith said the state is required to ensure that Eurofresh, like all other state contractors, complies with federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability.
Tuesday's ruling does not guarantee that Castle, who has since been released from prison, will get the financial damages he seeks. Instead it sends the case back to the trial court.
Smith said the state is required to make “reasonable modifications.” But he said that requirement does not apply if making those accommodations would “fundamentally alter” the nature of the program.