Federal judge OKs class action status for immigrant slaughterhouse workers suing federal agents

By: - August 12, 2022 6:03 am
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

A judge this week shot down a bid by the federal government to force each of the 104 Grainger County slaughterhouse workers rounded up in a legally suspect raid to file suit against agents accused of targeting them solely based on their race or ethnicity.

U.S. District Judge Travis McDonough on Tuesday agreed to grant class action status in a lawsuit initially filed on behalf of a handful of the 104 Hispanic workers at Southeastern Provision slaughterhouse in Bean Station impacted by the April 2018 raid.

The Department of Justice, which is representing dozens of federal agents in the case, has been fighting for months now to avoid the class-action designation. If the DOJ prevailed, it would mean each worker — even those deported after the raid — would be forced to hire attorneys and pursue individual trials, an expensive process that could span years.

But McDonough ruled there is ample evidence showing federal agents targeted all Hispanic workers at the plant under a single plan to turn what was supposed to be a search for proof of tax evasion by the slaughterhouse owner into the largest immigration raid in recent Tennessee history.

“All class members are Latino and were, according to (the original lawsuit), targeted for that reason,” McDonough wrote in the order. “They were all detained and taken to (a nearby National Guard) Armory for processing … The officers were all trained on the same policy and plan, and all class members were subject to the same treatment according to this plan.

“The class mechanism is likely the only way that individuals injured during the raid could bring these claims,” the order stated. “The … class members are low income and geographically dispersed across the United States and South and Central America, and many do not possess the English skills necessary to navigate the American legal system … The court finds it difficult to believe that the damages in this case would be so large as to influence deported and affrighted individuals to come forward, locate counsel and sue the appropriate parties.”

Records reviewed by the Tennessee Lookout show the plant raid, which garnered national headlines and spurred at least one documentary, was not supposed to be an immigration raid at all, and the plant’s workers were not supposed to be targets.

The court finds it difficult to believe that the damages in this case would be so large as to influence deported and affrighted individuals to come forward, locate counsel and sue the appropriate parties

– U.S. District Judge Travis McDonough

An IRS agent, instead, told a federal magistrate judge just days before the raid that he and fellow agents wanted permission to go inside the plant to collect records to use in a tax-evasion probe against plant owner James Brantley.

But court records show agents and federal prosecutors had been meeting for months prior to the search warrant request to plan a round-up of Latinos working at the plant as part of then-President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to get tough on illegal immigration.

White workers at the plant were allowed to roam free, while all Hispanic workers were detained, handcuffed and held for hours without any proof of wrongdoing, court records show. Dozens wound up deported.

Attorneys ‘pleased’ with ruling

Attorneys with nonprofit groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center and National Immigration Law Center filed suit in 2019 on behalf of roughly six of those workers against the agents and the U.S. government, alleging a conspiracy to violate rights to equal protection and due process guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit alleges Hispanic workers were not only targeted because of their race and ethnicity but were subjected to humiliation and, in at least two instances, brutality.

The nonprofit groups’ attorneys have been pushing McDonough to classify that initial lawsuit as a class-action litigation, which would allow them to mount a single case on behalf of all impacted workers.

In a statement released Thursday, the two nonprofit legal groups praised McDonough’s ruling.

“This raid was conducted in an unnecessarily violent, humiliating and demeaning manner toward Latino workers, National Immigration Law Center senior staff attorney Michelle Lapointe said in the statement. “We are pleased the court will allow the case to proceed as a class action, and look forward to proving our claims in court.”

Southern Poverty Law Center Meredith senior supervising attorney Meredith Stewart said the ruling “is a significant step in our fight for justice for our clients and their families.”

“The Constitution protects all people from law enforcement overreach, and (the workers) look forward to vindicating those rights in court,” Stewart said.

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Jamie Satterfield
Jamie Satterfield

Jamie Satterfield is an investigative journalist with more than 33 years of experience, specializing in legal affairs, policing, public corruption, environmental crime and civil rights violations. Her journalism has been honored as some of the best in the nation, earning recognition from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Awards, the Green Eyeshade Awards, the Tennessee Press Association, the Tennessee Managing Editors Association, the First Amendment Center and many other industry organizations. Her work has led to criminal charges against wrongdoers, changes in state law and citations in legal opinions and journals. She was married to the love of her life for 28 years and is now a widow and proud mother of two successful children of good character and work ethic.