US appeals court revives claims that prisoners were Baltimore County's 'employees'

By Daniel Wiessner, Reuters

A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday revived a lawsuit claiming that prison inmates in Baltimore County, Maryland, who sorted recyclables in a voluntary work program were the county's employees and should have been paid the minimum wage.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a judge who dismissed the proposed collective action must take another look at whether the program's primary purpose was to generate cheap labor for the county or to rehabilitate prisoners.

The judge had ruled that the inmates, who earned $20 a day, were not the county's employees under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act because their participation in the program was mainly for their benefit. But the 4th Circuit said Wednesday's case was distinct from past rulings cited by the judge involving work performed in prison, because the Baltimore County inmates worked offsite alongside non-detained workers who performed the same job.

"The County’s artificially low labor costs meant it could provide recycling services more cheaply than private providers, making it more difficult for private providers to secure business they otherwise might have won," Circuit Judge Toby Heytens wrote.

Lawyers for the county did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Howard Hoffman, who represents the plaintiffs, said the decision marked a major victory not only for inmates but also for workers who may have been displaced by prison job programs.

"There is a legal way for Baltimore County to have accessed this labor pool, and that is principally by paying at least the minimum wage as any private employer would have to do," Hoffman said.The inmates were transported to a county-operated recycling plant where they worked alongside employees provided by a staffing agency, including some former inmates. 

The county sold the recyclables to private companies, which it says helped offset the costs of incarcerating the inmates. Baltimore County halted the program in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the plaintiffs sued the following year on behalf of more than 550 people who participated in the program.

U.S. District Judge Stephanie Gallagher in Baltimore dismissed the lawsuit last year, pointing to the rehabilitative aspects of the program. The plaintiffs appealed and the 4th Circuit on Wednesday reversed, saying Gallagher had not fully considered whether the distinctions between the program and work performed behind prison walls warranted a different result. 

The court refrained from weighing in on whether the inmates should have been considered the county's employees. The 4th Circuit panel included Heytens and Circuit Judges Albert Diaz and Pamela Harris.The case is Scott v. Baltimore County, Maryland, 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 23-1731. For the plaintiffs: Howard Hoffman of Hoffman Employment LawFor the county: Jeffrey Johnson and Kraig Long of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough

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