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Iowa jury awards 32 disabled men $240M for years of abuse

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A jury Wednesday awarded $240 million to 32 mentally disabled men for what government lawyers say was years of abuse by a Texas company that arranged for them to work at an Iowa turkey processing plant and oversaw their care, work and lodging.

The award handed out by a federal jury in Davenport was the largest ever given in the 48-year history of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed the lawsuit against Henry's Turkey Service.

The jury determined that the now-defunct Goldthwaite, Texas, company had violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by creating a hostile environment and imposing discriminatory conditions of employment on the men. It found that Henry's acted with "malice or reckless indifference" to their civil rights, and awarded each man $7.5 million in damages.

The verdict is in addition to $1.3 million in back wages that a judge awarded last year. The men had been working at the West Liberty Foods plant under Henry's oversight since the 1970s, but they never received a raise from the $65 per month that Henry's paid them after deducting what it said were the costs of room and board.

The abuse was uncovered in 2009 after one of the men's sisters tipped off Iowa officials to the unsafe and unsanitary conditions at the rural bunkhouse where the men were housed. State inspectors found the building to be falling apart, infested with rodents and full of fire hazards, so they shut it down and placed the men with new caretakers. The EEOC later sued.

Social workers testified that the men described a life of constant abuse by their Henry's handlers. They said they had been forced to work through illness and injuries, denied bathroom breaks, locked in their rooms, kicked in the groin and, in one case, handcuffed to a bed.

EEOC attorney Robert Canino said he was elated at the verdict, which sends a message to the men that their lives matter.

He said the evidence showed "an unprecedented story of a pervasive and hostile environment" that was unique because it continued around the clock.

The defunct company isn't expected to be able to pay anywhere near the full amount of damages. The EEOC will work with the U.S. Department of Justice to examine company assets that could be seized to pay toward the judgment, including more than 1,000 acres of land in Texas worth up to $4 million, Canino said.

"We will work tirelessly to secure the most that we can for these men," he said.

Henry's began employing mentally disabled men in the 1960s and 1970s who had been released from Texas mental institutions. Hundreds of them were sent to labor camps in Iowa and elsewhere in the coming decades, where they were supplied on contract as workers to local employers.

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