September 25, 2018

Tenth Circuit: On Interlocutory Review, Class Certifications Were Not Abuse of Discretion by District Court

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Menocal, et al. v. The GEO Group, Inc. on February 9, 2018.

The appeal addresses whether or not immigration detainees housed in a private contract detention facility in Aurora, Colorado may bring claims as a class under 18 U.S.C. § 1589, a provision of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) that prohibits forced labor, and Colorado unjust enrichment law.

The GEO Group, Inc. (GEO) owns and operates the Aurora Facility under government contract. While there, the plaintiff detainees (Appellees) rendered mandatory and voluntary services to GEO. Under GEO’s mandatory policies, they cleaned their housing units’ common areas. They also performed various jobs through a voluntary work program, which paid them $1 a day.

The district court certified two separate classes: (1) all detainees housed at the Aurora Facility in the past ten years (TVPA class), and (2) all detainees who participated in the Aurora Facility’s voluntary work program in the past three years (unjust enrichment class). On interlocutory appeal, GEO argues that the district court abused its discretion in certifying each class under Rule 23(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. It primarily contended that the Appellees’ TVPA and Colorado unjust enrichment claims both require predominantly individualized determinations, making class treatment inappropriate.

At all times relevant to this appeal, GEO owned and operated the Aurora Facility under contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In operating this facility, GEO implemented two programs that form the basis for this case: (1) the Housing Unit Sanitation Policy, which required all detainees to clean their common living areas; and (2) the Voluntary Work Program, which compensated detainees $1 a day for performing various jobs.

The Aurora Facility’s Sanitation Policy had two components: (1) a mandatory housing unit sanitation program, and (2) a general disciplinary system for detainees who engaged in “prohibited acts,” including refusal to participate in the housing unit sanitation program. Under the mandatory housing unit sanitation program, GEO staff generated daily lists of detainees from each housing unit who were assigned to clean common areas after meal service. Upon arriving at the Aurora Facility, each detainee received a handbook notifying them of their obligation to participate in the program.

Under the disciplinary system, detainees who refused to perform their cleaning assignments faced a range of possible sanctions, including the initiation of criminal proceedings, disciplinary segregation—solitary confinement—for up to 72 hours, loss of commissary, loss of job, restriction to housing unit, reprimand, or warning. The Aurora Facility handbook included an explanation of the disciplinary system and the possible sanctions for refusing to clean. The Appellees alleged that the TVPA class members were all “forced to clean the housing units for no pay and under threat of solitary confinement as punishment for any refusal to work.”

Under the Aurora Facility’s Voluntary Work Program (VWP), participating detainees received $1 a day in compensation for voluntarily performing jobs such as painting, food services, laundry services, barbershop, and sanitation. Detainees who wished to participate in the VWP had to sign the “Detainee Voluntary Work Program Agreement,” which specified that “compensation shall be $1 per day.” Detainees had the additional option of working without pay if no paid positions were available. The complaint alleged that the VWP class members were all “paid one dollar $1 per day for their VWP labor.”

The Appellees filed a class action complaint against GEO in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado on behalf of current and former ICE detainees housed at the Aurora Facility. The complaint alleged a TVPA forced labor claim based on the Sanitation Policy, and an unjust enrichment claim under Colorado law based on the VWP. GEO moved to dismiss the complaint under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. Regarding the TVPA claim, GEO argued that the Thirteenth Amendment’s civic duty exception to the prohibition on involuntary servitude should also apply to the TVPA’s ban on forced labor. Regarding the unjust enrichment claim, GEO asserted sovereign immunity as a government contractor because ICE “specifically directed it to establish a voluntary detainee work program and pay the detainees who volunteer for that program $1 per day.” The district court rejected these arguments and denied GEO’s motion to dismiss the TVPA and unjust enrichment claims. GEO moved for reconsideration of the court’s rulings. The court denied the motion, finding that GEO “d[id] not identify any intervening change in controlling law or new evidence previously unavailable” to warrant reconsideration. After prevailing on the motion to dismiss, Appellees moved for certification of a separate class for each claim under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a) and (b)(3). GEO petitioned the Tenth Circuit for interlocutory review of the class certifications. Accordingly, only the district court’s order granting class certification—and not its rulings on whether the complaint stated TVPA and unjust enrichment claims—is before us.

The Tenth Circuit reviewed the district court’s decision to certify a class for an abuse of discretion. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s certification of the TVPA class. GEO contended that the district court abused its discretion in determining that the TVPA class satisfied commonality, typicality, predominance, and superiority. The court did not abuse its discretion as to any of these requirements in certifying the TVPA class.

The Tenth Circuit also affirmed the district court’s certification of unjust enrichment class. GEO argued the district court abused its discretion in determining that the unjust enrichment class satisfies commonality, typicality, predominance, and superiority. The district court reasonably determined that the class members shared the circumstances relevant to the unjustness question and that individual damage assessments would not predominate over the class’s common issues. Its findings on commonality, typicality, and superiority were likewise reasonable and fell within its discretion.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s certification of both classes.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Speak Your Mind

*