CoreCivic faces legal action for unsafe conditions
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Law360 (March 11, 2021, 8:16 p.m. EST) – A San Diego judge ruled on Wednesday that the operator of a private prison CoreCivic will face the brunt of a lawsuit brought by a former employee, saying the conditions inside a detention center could support his request for constructive dismissal.
Margarita Smith’s claim that CoreCivic failed to provide a safe and hygienic work environment amid the COVID-19 pandemic is the very “public order” concern at the heart of a dismissal request in disguise, said Southern District Judge James Lorenz.
“Here, the plaintiff is pursuing a claim based on the defendant’s alleged failure to adequately protect himself against COVID-19 in the detention center,” Judge Lorenz wrote. “This type of unfair dismissal claim is at least viable at the plea stage.”
In March 2020, Smith resigned from CoreCivic, where she worked as an Immigration Detention Officer at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. She suffers from several underlying respiratory issues – such as asthma and, at the time, pneumonia – and argued that her resignation was prompted by CoreCivic’s failure to implement basic COVID protocols -19 for immigrant staff and inmates.
Its April 2020 trial alleged the company failed to apply social distancing, banned employees from wearing masks, and crammed hundreds of inmates together in the same room.
CoreCivic requested that his lawsuit be dismissed, arguing primarily that his unfair dismissal claims were not tied to a specific public policy imperative.
Judge Lorenz disagreed, writing that a failure to provide a safe working environment would indeed be contrary to public order and would form the basis of a demand for constructive dismissal.
The company further argued that despite the public policy analysis, Smith had not shown that conditions were so bad that resignation was the only alternative. But Judge Lorenz noted that given CoreCivic’s alleged breach of basic security protocols, Smith’s claim was plausible.
Judge Lorenz, however, agreed to dismiss two of Smith’s claims related to negligence and the intentional imposition of emotional distress. He agreed with CoreCivic that the appropriate venue for these 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 his COVID-19 practices at the Otay Mesa detention center. Each of their lawsuits has survived similar motions to dismiss on comparable grounds.
“Clients were subjected to an unreasonable and unsafe working environment. We look forward to moving forward with the case on the merits. The defenses against the wrongful dismissal allegations were flawed and properly dismissed by the court. Smith’s attorney Joshua Gruenberg said. told Law360 on Thursday.
In a statement released Friday, CoreCivic denied Smith’s claims, calling them “specious and sensationalist allegations designed to achieve a favorable outcome.”
The company said face masks are provided to all employees and inmates, surfaces are routinely sanitized, social distancing is regularly encouraged, and employees are screened when entering an establishment. The statement noted that she would respond in detail to Smith’s allegations in court.
“Ever since even before any confirmed case of COVID-19 at our facilities, we have strictly followed the guidelines 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 firm 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 U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.
Update: This story has been updated to include a statement from CoreCivic on Friday.
–Edited by Steven Edelstone.
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