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GEO Group Fights Zoom Trial Over Detainees' $1 Daily Wages

By Alyssa Aquino · Mar 31, 2021, 5:03 PM EDT

Private prison giant GEO Group Inc. fought back against having to mount a virtual defense against allegations of paying $1-a-day wages to immigrant detainees, telling a Washington state federal judge that issues of procedural fairness will "hang heavy over the trial."

GEO Group urged U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan to reconsider ordering a June 1 Zoom trial over class claims that it severely underpaid U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees for janitorial work at its Northwest Processing Center in Tacoma, Washington. Though the case involves a class of thousands of detainees and dozens of witnesses, a virtual trial will lack protections ensuring fairness, opening up the door for later appeals by whichever party didn't win at trial, GEO Group said.

"Ordering the parties to a Zoom trial does not expedite justice, but instead ensures that this case will persist even longer through an appellate process and the possibility of a new trial as a result of the format of the proceedings," GEO Group said Monday.

GEO Group raised several due process concerns in its initial opposition to a Zoom trial to no avail, as Judge Bryan swept aside all of its concerns in ordering a virtual trial, stressing the need to get through trial backlogs from the pandemic.

The judge said an order in a separate suit, Liu v. Allstate, showed that he could force GEO Group through a virtual trial.

However, GEO Group pointed out on Monday that the Liu case included several safeguards over the virtual trial, including shortened trial days, multiple breaks and the assignment of courtroom deputies to ensure that jurors wouldn't be distracted as the trial progressed.

"No such safeguards have been imposed in this case," GEO Group said.

The company further argued that the Liu case was a simpler, seven-day, damages-only trial in which the defendant had already conceded liability.

In contrast, the GEO Group trial is scheduled for three full weeks and involves a class of thousands of individuals, the state attorney general and at least 31 potential witnesses. There are also unresolved legal issues heading into the trial, such as whether ICE detainees qualify for the same labor protections as "employees," the company said.

Since 2017, GEO Group has been fighting allegations that it violated the Washington Minimum Wage Act by paying detainees enrolled in a work program in the Northwest Detention Center a $1 daily rate to clean the facility, cook and perform other various jobs. The suits come from both a class of detainees and Washington state.

Though the cases have been pending for over three years, the trial has been delayed for nearly two years, according to court filings. Citing the lags and GEO Group's continued detention work program, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson agreed earlier this month to conduct an in-person trial in July or, "if necessary," an earlier virtual trial.

On Tuesday, the Washington state Legislature passed a bill that would ban in-state private detention centers, legislation that targets GEO Group's Northwest Detention Center, the state's sole private detention facility. 

The Washington Attorney General's Office had no further comment beyond what it has told the federal court, a spokesperson told Law360 on Wednesday. Representatives for GEO Group and the plaintiffs did not return requests for comment.

GEO Group is represented by Adrienne Scheffey and Lawrence Silverman of Akerman LLP, and Joan Mell of III Branches Law PLLC.

The consolidated cases are Washington v. GEO Group Inc. and Ugochukwu Goodluck Nwauzor et al. v. GEO Group Inc., case numbers 3:17-cv-05906 and 3:17-cv-05769, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.

--Editing by Steven Edelstone.

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