A federal court has ordered Hill County Farms to immediately begin making payments to the federal government for compensation it owes to a group of individuals with disabilities it allegedly abused for decades.
In an eight-page order [PDF] issued September 11, the U.S. District Court for the District of Texas accused the company of concocting an “elaborate scheme” to hide the long-overdue compensation.
“Since the time when most of the men were rescued from their deplorable working conditions in 2009, they have been waiting for compensation,” said Robert Canino, regional attorney for the Dallas District Office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in a news release. “The jury verdict in 2013 struck a blow toward justice and brought to light important discrimination issues; however, the monetary aspect of the legal remedies has been slow in coming.”
As detailed in an award-winning NY Times feature, the Iowa-based Henry’s Turkey Farms warehoused 32 employees with intellectual disabilities for decades, stealing their Supplemental Security Income, SSI, checks and working them in conditions described as “slavery.” During the course of their employment, they were paid on average $0.65 per hour.
The EEOC shut down Henry’s Turkey Farm in 2009. Two years later, a federal court ordered Texas-based Hills Turkey Farm, the parent company of Henry’s Turkey Farms, to pay the employees more than $1.7 million in backpay. The next year, the EEOC secured a more than $1.3 million judgment against the company for discriminatory practices.
In 2013, a jury awarded the plaintiffs $240 million. Even though that verdict was later reduced to $1.6 million due to statutory caps, it is considered a landmark decision for the rights of workers with disabilities.
None of the individuals have yet received a penny. Four of the 32 men have since died.
The latest court decision concerns the 2011 judgment. Thus far, the EEOC has successfully collected less than $300,000 of the more than $1.7 million owed, despite multiple demand letters and court orders.
During this period, Hills County Farms became involved in a land dispute with J&J Egg Farm. Hills County Farms argues it became entitled to a 50 percent share of J&J Egg Farm when one of J&J’s founders, Thurman Johnson, transferred her share of the property to Hills County Farms, upon her death.
The parties reached a confidential agreement in October 2013, granting Hills County Farm 50 percent of J&J Egg Farm. However, it also provided that Hills County Farms would transfer its assets into J&J Egg Farm to the estate of Thurman Johnson.
Last month, the EEOC filed an emergency motion, requesting that the District Court override the confidential agreement, thus allowing it to access the $600,000 in assets Hills County Farms has in J&J Eggs Farm.
The District Court agreed, finding that the Hills County Farms’ sole purpose in transferring its assets in J&J Egg Farm to Johnson’s estate was to hide it from the EEOC.
“The court does not believe it is by accident that the settlement proceeds make their way to the children” of the owners of Henry’s Turkey Service,” Judge Jorge A. Solis wrote in the order. “This was an intentional scheme concocted solely to shield a substantial sum of money from the United States’ collection efforts.”
Once this compensation is collected, the EEOC will begin distributing the proceeds to the plaintiffs.