A federal judge again has refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson against the private company that owns and operates a Tacoma immigration-detention center in an effort to force the company to give up its profits and pay immigration detainees the state’s minimum wage for jobs they perform.
It is the third ruling U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan has issued since the lawsuit was filed in 2017 that has gone against the GEO Group Inc. The company contracts with the Department of Homeland Security to operate the 1,575-bed Northwest Detention Center where immigration detainees are held pending hearings or deportation. At issue is a Voluntary Work Program operated by GEO in which detainees perform tasks such as cutting hair and janitorial work and are paid $1 a day for their efforts.
In the latest ruling, handed down Monday, Bryan granted a motion by Ferguson’s office challenging the company’s claim that, as a federal contractor, it enjoys the same immunity that the government does from lawsuits, and that federal law prohibiting the employment of people in the country illegally preempts state labor laws.
The judge also rejected GEO’s attempts to dismiss a claim of “unjust enrichment” by the state, which is attempting to make the company turn over profits it has made since it began operating the center in 2005. That could amount to millions of dollars.
However, the judge denied both the attorney general’s (AG) and GEO’s motions for a ruling on the issue of whether the Washington Minimum Wage Act (WMWA) actually applies to detainees.
“There are so many issues of fact in this case, it is not yet clear whether the detainees will be considered employees under the WMWA,” Bryan wrote. “Further, the state points out that the validity of the Voluntary Work Program agreement is at issue.”
Bryan stated that there are “genuine issues of material facts as to whether GEO and the detainee workers have an employee-employer relationship” and, at this point, the case is set to proceed to trial on Sept. 23.
In a statement issued earlier this week, Ferguson stated that “GEO cannot avoid accountability by hiding behind its contract with [Immigration and Customs Enforcement].”
Bryan’s ruling “means GEO can no longer argue that federal law prevents it from complying with Washington law,” Ferguson said. “I look forward to ensuring this multibillion dollar corporation complies with Washington law and either pays detainees minimum wage or hires workers from the community to perform the nonsecurity functions at the Northwest Detention Center.”
Earlier this year, Bryan rejected a series of “affirmative defenses” the company claimed protected it from the AG’s claims, and last year he ordered the company to turn over financial information to the AG’s office, although it is not yet clear whether it can be used at trial.
An email seeking comment from GEO’s local counsel did not receive a response Thursday. However, earlier this year the company attacked Ferguson’s lawsuit as being “politically motivated.” In court documents, the company says the state has known about the $1 a day payment program since as early as 2009, but that Ferguson did not file a lawsuit until after the 2016 election of President Donald Trump and the implementation of controversial immigration policies.
GEO pays detainees $1 per day to volunteer for tasks such as janitorial or kitchen work. Washington’s minimum wage is now $12 per hour. The state wants GEO to give up the profits it has made relying on detainee labor over the years, which the attorney general’s office says amount to millions of dollars.