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Law360 (March 11, 2021, 8:16 PM EST) -- A San Diego judge ruled on Wednesday that private prison operator CoreCivic will have to face the bulk of a lawsuit brought by a former employee, finding that the conditions inside a detention facility could support her claim for constructive termination.
Margarita Smith's allegation that CoreCivic failed to provide a safe and hygienic working environment amid the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes the very "public policy" concern central to a constructive dismissal claim, Southern District of California Judge M. James Lorenz said.
"Here, Plaintiff is pursuing a claim based on Defendant's alleged failure to adequately protect against COVID-19 in the detention center," Judge Lorenz wrote. "That type of wrongful constructive termination claim is at least viable at the pleading stage."
In March 2020, Smith resigned from CoreCivic, where she was working as an immigration detention officer at the San Diego-based Otay Mesa Detention Center. She has several underlying respiratory conditions — such as asthma and, at the time, pneumonia — and argued that her resignation was prompted by CoreCivic's failure to implement basic COVID-19 protocols for staff and immigrant detainees.
Her April 2020 lawsuit alleged that the company did not implement social distancing, prohibited employees from wearing masks and crowded hundreds of detainees together in the same room.
CoreCivic moved to dismiss her lawsuit, countering primarily that her wrongful constructive termination claims were not related to a specific public policy imperative.
Judge Lorenz disagreed, writing that a failure to provide a safe working environment would indeed contravene public policy and provide the basis for a constructive dismissal claim.
The company further argued that despite the public policy analysis, Smith had not shown that the conditions were so bad that resignation was the only alternative. But Judge Lorenz noted that given CoreCivic's alleged failure to observe basic safety protocols, Smith's claim was plausible.
Judge Lorenz, however, did agree to toss two of Smith's claims related to negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He concurred with CoreCivic that the appropriate venue for those allegations was a workers' compensation claim, due to California's workers' compensation exclusivity rule.
Two other former employees, Erica Brooks and Gregory Arnold, are also suing CoreCivic over its COVID-19 practices at the Otay Mesa Detention Center. Each of their suits has survived similar motions to dismiss on comparable grounds.
"The clients were subjected to an unreasonable and dangerous work environment. We look forward to moving forward with the case on its merits. The defenses raised to the claims of wrongful constructive termination were lame and properly rejected by the court," Smith's attorney Joshua Gruenberg told Law360 on Thursday.
In a statement Friday, CoreCivic denied Smith's allegations, calling them "specious and sensationalized allegations that are designed to obtain a favorable outcome."
The company said that face masks are provided to all employees and detainees, surfaces are routinely disinfected, social distancing is regularly encouraged and employees are screened when entering a facility. The statement noted that it would respond in detail to Smith's allegations in court.
"Since even before any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our facilities, we have rigorously followed the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities, as well as our government partners," the company said. "We have responded to this unprecedented situation appropriately, thoroughly and with care for the safety and well-being of those entrusted to us and our communities."
Margarita Smith is represented by Joshua Gruenberg and Colette Menaldino of the Law Office of Joshua D. Gruenberg.
CoreCivic of Tennessee LLC is represented by Paul Gleason of Gleason & Favarote LLP.
The case is Smith v. CoreCivic of Tennessee LLC et al., case number 3:20-cv-00808, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.
Update: This story has been updated to include a statement from CoreCivic on Friday.
--Editing by Steven Edelstone.
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