Apr. 19—Child support debtors who claim they were coerced into working at the Lackawanna County Recycling Center should be allowed to proceed with a lawsuit that alleges the county's policy violated anti-slavery and human trafficking laws, a federal magistrate judge said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Saporito said there is not enough information at this point in the litigation to determine if the claim raised in the lawsuit is legally sufficient. He said the case should proceed to further develop the factual record.
The class-action lawsuit was filed in 2019 on behalf of the lead plaintiffs, William L. Burrell Jr. and Dampsey Stuckey, both of Scranton, and Joshua Huzzard of Ocala, Florida, and potentially hundreds more people who were jailed at the county prison for failing to pay child support.
The suit challenged provisions within a contract between the Lackawanna County Solid Waste Management Authority and Lackawanna County Recycling Center Inc., a private company owned by Louis and Dominic DeNaples, that operates the center. In addition to the county, other defendants include the authority, LCRC and the DeNapleses.
According to the suit, the county had a policy that required child support debtors work at the facility for $5 a day in order to qualify for work release. The county stopped sending debtors to the center in July, but that did not affect the lawsuit.
The key issue in dispute is whether the policy equated to forced labor in violation of the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which outlawed slavery and indentured servitude, and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which protects against human trafficking.
Attorneys for the defendants contend it did not because the debtors had a choice to work at the center or not. The debtors' attorneys argued there was no "choice" since their only other option was to stay in prison.
Saporito was assigned to review claims in the suit and issue a recommendation to U.S. District Judge Robert D. Mariani, who has the final say on the case.
In recommending the case be allowed to proceed, Saporito said there are not enough prior court rulings regarding the forced labor issue to allow him to definitively decide the matter.
Saporito did recommend other parts of the lawsuit be dismissed, however, including claims that the policy violated state and federal wage laws for failing to pay minimum wage to the debtors, who are jailed for civil contempt of court.
Saporito said wage laws do not apply to prisoners, regardless of whether they are jailed for a criminal or civil matter.
Attorneys for all parties recently filed objections to Saporito's recommendations. Mariani will review all the filings and issue a ruling at a later date.
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