Private Prison Co. Claims Immunity In Family Separations Suit
Law360 (December 10, 2020, 10:42 PM EST) –
Private prison operator GEO Group asked a federal judge Wednesday to throw out claims that it maliciously separated families at a Texas detention center, saying it was acting at the behest of the government and should therefore be granted immunity.
“Government contractors are generally not liable for actions taken to carry out the federal government’s orders,” the company, which detains immigrants on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, argued in a motion for summary judgment in Texas federal court.
“The undisputed evidence shows not only that GEO substantially complied with ICE’s policies but also that ICE itself was directly involved during the events at issue,” the company said.
In June 2018, a California federal judge handed down an injunction barring family separations, but GEO allegedly separated the plaintiffs — 13 immigrant fathers — from their sons a few months after the injunction was handed down. The company contends that the injunction was not intended to cover emergency situations, which is how it characterized the separations.
The immigrants say that the manner in which they were separated from their children in August 2018 was “extreme and outrageous.” Once the fathers were moved away from the Karnes County Detention Center in South Texas, some of them “vomited blood and shook uncontrollably,” according to their complaint.
The fathers said GEO officers told them they would never see their sons again, and one said he attempted suicide. They were returned to Karnes the following day.
The plaintiffs initially claimed that the separations violated the law, but GEO invoked immunity under agency doctrine.
Though he had previously denied GEO’s motion to dismiss, U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard B. Farrer observed that the alleged illegal activity was “not ascribed to the separation itself but instead to the manner in which GEO effected that separation,” a nod to GEO’s arguments about the protected agency relationship between the company and ICE.
GEO argues that the immigrants’ claims that the manner of their separations was illegal should be tossed for the same reason, as the way those separations were carried out was prescribed and overseen by ICE.
U.S. Supreme Court precedent dictates that a government contractor staying “within the authority delegated by a federal agency” can’t be held liable for its actions, according to GEO.
“ICE’s own agents were present and had direct knowledge of the situation,” the company said, arguing that this tacit grant of authority conferred immunity. “GEO is entitled to … immunity because all of the conduct plaintiffs have complained of was validly authorized and supervised by ICE.”
An attorney for the immigrants did not return a request for comment.
The immigrants are represented by Jule Rousseau, Susan Tran and Jacob Gilbert of Arent Fox LLP, Bridget Cambria and Karen Hoffmann of Aldea — The People’s Justice Center, and Manoj Govindaiah and Curtis Doebbler of Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.
GEO is represented by Charles Deacon and Mark Emery of Norton Rose Fulbright.
The case is Rios et al. v. The Geo Group Inc., case number 5:19-cv-00552, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.
–Editing by Adam LoBelia.
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