Inside The Settlement Over ICE's 'Steak Out' Raid In Tenn.

By Marco Poggio | March 24, 2023, 7:57 PM EDT ·

Federal and state law enforcement officers executing a mass arrest at the Southeastern Provision meatpacking plant in Bean Station, Tennessee

Federal and state law enforcement officers execute a mass arrest at the Southeastern Provision meatpacking plant in Bean Station, Tennessee, on April 5, 2018. The raid, which at the time was the largest workplace immigration enforcement operation in a decade, resulted in a class action alleging that authorities illegally targeted Latino employees based solely on their ethnicity. The suit recently settled for nearly $1.2 million. (Security camera footage)

Martha Pulido, a former worker at a slaughterhouse in east Tennessee, said she will never forget the morning in April 2018 when armor-clad federal agents — many with guns drawn, shouting "Immigration!" — stormed her workplace, sending her and everyone around into panic.

Security camera footage from the Southeastern Provision plant shows federal agents violently subduing a worker during the April 2018 raid.

It was a massive show of force — the largest workplace immigration raid in a decade — with more than 100 officers sweeping through the Southeastern Provision meatpacking plant in Bean Station, Tennessee, a small town in the far eastern corner of the state.

As they entered the facility under color of an IRS search warrant for business records, officers with a host of federal, state and local agencies fanned out around the facility, screaming at workers to stop moving, blocking every exit as a helicopter hovered overhead.

"They came in screaming," Pulido told Law360. "Everything turned into chaos. Everybody wanted to get out of there but the place was surrounded, by sky and by land, on all sides."

The officers arrested 104 workers, all of them Latino, and let everyone else go. Security cameras at the plant captured videos of the arrests, including one showing a federal agent violently tackling a worker after a chase, pinning him to the ground, and pressing his boot on the man's neck.

The arrestees were handcuffed with zip ties and taken to a National Guard armory in a nearby county. There, they were interrogated and fingerprinted, and most of them were processed for deportation. Dozens of workers were later transferred to detention centers in Louisiana and Alabama.

The day after the raid, nearly 600 children in the community did not show up for school, either because their parents were among those who had been detained, or because they feared being arrested themselves. Pulido's daughter and two grandchildren, who lived with her, were left wondering where she was.

"People in the community were so scared and worried. They didn't know what was going to happen to their spouses and mothers," said Pulido, who harbors a fear of law enforcement to this day.

The raid went on to become the subject of a February 2019 civil rights class action accusing the federal agents of conspiring to target the plant's Latino employees, without probable cause and based solely on their race, for mass arrest.

The case came to an end last month as a federal judge approved a $1.175 million settlement between the workers and the federal government.

Under the terms of the deal, workers arrested in the raid are set to receive a total of $550,000 and, upon request, a letter from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirming their membership in the class that they can use in any applications for immigration relief.

The settlement also requires the U.S. government to pay $475,000 to six individual plaintiffs, including Pulido, to resolve claims under federal tort law, including excessive force and unlawful arrest.

According to the plaintiffs' attorneys, which include lawyers from Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP working pro bono alongside the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Immigration Law Center, the settlement is likely the first-ever class settlement over an immigration enforcement operation at a work site.

"We think it does send a message to the government and to law enforcement that this type of overreach — such as excessive force and racial profiling — will not go unchallenged, including when it's directed at low-wage immigrant workers," Meredith Stewart, senior supervising attorney at Southern Poverty Law Center, told Law360.

The rare win against the federal government goes well beyond the vindicated rights of a local community of immigrant workers. It was transformative for Pulido and other people impacted by the raid, because they learned something they didn't know before: that they have rights.

"I knew that, as a person, I deserved respect," Pulido said. "But I didn't know that, as an immigrant, I had rights under the law."

Mass Arrest Without Probable Cause

Operation Great

Operation Great "Steak" Out PowerPoint cover.

While pursuing the plant's owner on suspicion of avoiding payroll taxes, IRS investigators involved ICE agents because they believed the facility employed unauthorized immigrants and paid them in cash. Planning for the operation, dubbed "The Great 'Steak' Out" in reference to the plant's cattle-butchering business, began nearly a year in advance, court documents show.

On the basis of a search warrant that was narrowly focused on business records related to the suspected tax evasion, the two agencies planned and executed the large-scale, militarized arrest operation, exclusively targeting the Latino workers at the plant.

Skadden partner Eben P. Colby said the operation was misguided. First, the warrant didn't cover the arrest of people for immigration issues. Second, the raid was motivated by bias, he said.

"The plan was to arrest all the Latino workers and let the white workers go," he said. "You just can't arrest people without probable cause. And the fact that someone is Latino is just not probable cause."

In a complaint filed on Feb. 21, 2019, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, Pulido and five of her co-workers alleged that ICE and IRS agents violated their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights by targeting them for their perceived ethnic background, equating being Latino to lacking legal immigration status.

"Some of the folks who were arrested had proper documentation and were not undocumented in any way," including lead plaintiff Isabel Zelaya, who showed agents his work authorization card, Colby said.

"They took him in anyway, just because he was Latino," he added.

Ninety-seven of the workers arrested during the raid were found to be undocumented and placed in deportation proceedings. About 20 of them went on to be deported.

Whether they have a legal pathway to return to the U.S. depends on their individual circumstances, but it's generally hard to reverse a deportation, SPLC's Stewart said.

A Difficult Road to the Settlement

Tennessee is one of only three states — along with Kentucky and Louisiana — to utilize a strict one-year statute of limitations for bringing certain civil rights claims in federal court. In the Sixth Circuit, where the suit played out, individuals must be sued by name before the statute of limitations expires.

By the time the Southeastern Provision plaintiffs filed their original complaint, only a fraction of the agents had been identified and could be named as defendants. Attorneys for the workers said that the government intentionally slow-walked the initial stage of litigation after they filed their first complaint in the case in hopes that the statute of limitations would expire, resulting in dozens of other agents possibly being let off the hook.

The IRS took repeated steps to prevent plaintiffs from uncovering the identities of agents involved in the raid's execution, court documents show. In addition, attorneys for the workers had to file Freedom of Information Act requests and file suit just to get the ICE officers' names.

"The agencies' effort to obstruct plaintiffs from obtaining the individual agents' names was motivated by a desire to avoid litigation," Stewart said.

In 2021, numerous named defendant agents, both "planners" of the raid and "nonplanners," were added to the lawsuit.

The government went on to win dismissal of some of the workers' claims, but a judge allowed them to move forward on allegations of conspiracy to violate civil rights and failure to prevent the violation of civil rights, along with individual excessive force claims and claims against the United States under federal tort law. What followed was an intense discovery process that produced tens of thousands of pages of documents, and required dozens of depositions, including 50 of parties alone.

Eben Colby

Eben Colby

The Skadden team, led by Colby, special counsel Jeremy A. Berman and counsel Arthur R. Bookout, and including "many" dozens of associates and staffers collectively dedicating approximately 15,000 hours, helped SPLC and NILC win the order granting class certification and denials of motions to dismiss, according to a firm spokesperson.

The firm's attorneys deposed several IRS and U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents who participated in the raid and spent hundreds of hours reviewing documents and video recordings produced by defendants, which were crucial in securing the settlement, Skadden said in a statement.

"It was a massive effort by a big team at Skadden," said Colby, a trial and appellate attorney whose practice includes advising on securities, corporate and regulatory matters.

When moving to certify the class, Colby said the biggest challenge was to convince the court that the workers had all been treated similarly enough that their claims could be litigated on a classwide basis.

While the government countered that agents had made individualized assessments when deciding which workers to detain, U.S. District Judge Travis R. McDonough rejected the argument in August and agreed to certify the class.

The judge pointed to internal documents preceding the raid showing that federal agents had "used Hispanic identity as a proxy for illegal immigration status" and had planned to target the workers based on their ethnic background. He also cited footage from officers' body cameras and the plant's closed-circuit television showing lines of Latino employees being arrested and loaded onto vans, while white workers walked by.

The class certification order and the amount of evidence available, including dramatic video — which the government sought to keep out of the public record — showing the officers using excessive force gave the workers significant leverage in securing a settlement, Colby said.

"The evidence that came in was that if you were 'Hispanic' you were arrested, and if you were white you were let go," he said. "The facts just weren't good for the government."

Skadden's partnership with SPLC is a well-tested one. Between 2012 and 2015, the organization and the firm litigated a civil suit against Signal International, a Gulf Coast marine services company that was found liable for defrauding and exploiting nearly 500 Indian workers recruited to work in shipyards. The suit, part of one of the largest human trafficking cases in U.S. history and which also embroiled an immigration lawyer, ended with a $20 million settlement in July 2015.

That collaboration opened the door for more. When SPLC and NILC began working on the Southeastern Provision raid case, given the size and the scale of the potential litigation, they asked Skadden to join.

"They gave us an opportunity to help out," Colby said. "It shows how fruitful these partnerships can be."

The 'Weaponization' of the IRS

The plant's owner, James Brantley, was the only person named on the IRS search warrant, and the only person the agency claimed to have probable cause to believe was violating the law. While Brantley was not arrested during the raid, he was eventually convicted of tax evasion and wire fraud.

Signed by a magistrate judge two days before the raid, the IRS search warrant, which authorized the seizure of bookkeeping records, financial statements, payroll information and other business papers, as well as electronic devices, turned out to be a Trojan horse for an immigration enforcement operation unlike anything seen since May 2008, when about 900 ICE agents swarmed a slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, and arrested 398 employees, nearly all of whom were Latino.

Michelle Lapointe, a legal deputy director at the NILC, said it's hard to ascertain how often IRS search warrants are used as part of immigration-related operations, but she pointed to other examples where the agency took part in ICE investigations.

In December 2019, for instance, ICE and IRS jointly executed a search warrant at six Atlanta-area supermarkets.

"I don't think it's particularly common, but I think it's symptomatic of the Trump administration's weaponization of federal agencies to maximize immigration enforcement," Lapointe said.

Carissa Cutrell, a spokesperson for the IRS criminal investigation division, declined to provide statistics on the agency's involvement in immigration enforcement operations. Counsel for nonplanner IRS agents declined to comment. A spokesperson for ICE, meanwhile, did not return emails seeking comments.

The workers are represented by Meredith B. Stewart, Felix A. Montanez, Norma Ventura, Julia Solórzano and Sharada Jambulapati of the Southern Poverty Law Center; Michelle Lapointe, Araceli Martínez-Olguín and Joanna Elise Cuevas Ingram of the National Immigration Law Center; William L. Harbison and John L. Farringer IV of Sherrard Roe Voigt & Harbison PLC; Phillip F. Cramer of Sperling & Slater PC; and Eben P. Colby, Jeremy A. Berman, Arthur R. Bookout, Andrew D. Kinsey, Stefania A. Rosca, Korinne Muller and Mitchell A. Hokanson of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP.

The nonplanner IRS agents are represented by Thomas J. Aumann, Charles K. Grant and Clarence Risin of Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz PC.

The nonplanner DHS agents are represented by Jimmie C. Miller, Joseph B. Harvey and Stephen M. Darden of Hunter Smith & Davis LLP.

The planner IRS agents are represented by Donald J. Aho, Zachary H. Greene and Bradford G. Harvey of Miller & Martin PLLC.

The case is Isabel Zelaya et al. v. Jere Miles et al., case number 3:19-cv-00062, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee.

--Editing by Marygrace Anderson.

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