Court Declines to Dismiss Immigrant’s Workplace Complaint Against Pilgrim’s Pride

Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, a poultry company, was denied its request to dismiss a lawsuit against it that alleged it illegally replaced immigrant employees based on their citizenship status. The Order was issued by the United States Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review on December 3, 2020, and was released to the public earlier this week. 

The complainants, Steven Brown, Bernardo Garcia, Joaquin Hernandez, Nicolas Martinez, and Marshall Pitman, filed their complaint with the Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer (OCAHO). They were reportedly employed by Pilgrim’s Pride “as chicken catchers,” and were informed that they were discharged as catchers in early July and offered different positions with lower pay. Two of the individuals chose to take the other position and three reportedly resigned. 

The respondent purported that the individuals did not state a claim for relief, however, the Order said that the assertion from the complainants that Pilgrim’s Pride wished to switch to contract workers to do the job “gives rise to an inference of discrimination.” The court ruled that the facts presented, if true, are sufficient to not dismiss the case. 

The Order explained, “to establish a prima facie case of discrimination, complainants need to establish that complainants are members of a protected class, were qualified for the positions held, were discharged, and were replaced by people not in complainants’ protected class. The first two elements are not disputed in this case. But Respondent argues that Complainants are unable to establish a prima facie case of discrimination because Complainants fail to plead the last two elements, ‘that they were fired or replaced by individuals who were not in their protected class.’” 

The respondent argued that although the complainants did admit they were replaced by contractors, specifically one contractor who subcontracted the work they had been doing to other parties, they did not know if those doing the work belonged to their protected class. The court in response to this explained that the pleading standards before the OCAHO are lower and that the complainants did “plead enough to raise an inference of discrimination.” 

Reportedly Pilgrim’s Pride, the respondent, in its Motion to Dismiss also asked if the court had the jurisdiction to oversee the case, specifically they argued that since the individuals were offered alternative positions they were not discriminatorily fired, rather, their positions were eliminated and they were relocated. 

Alternatively, the complainants argued that those who decided to leave were discharged, under the definition of a constructive discharge, because Pilgrim’s Pride made the “working conditions so intolerable that a reasonable person would be forced to resign.” The order reported that the individuals were making approximately $1,300 each week, but the new positions paid only about $700 a week. It said that the complainants had “alleged sufficient facts to plead a claim of constructive discharge.” 

The court said that the complainants cited 32 additional facts, which were not in the complaint, and said that these facts could not be considered; however, the complainants said they would construe a request to be allowed to amend the complaint to include these if necessary as a motion to amend the complaint. Jean King, Chief Administrative Law Judge, granted the plaintiffs the ability to amend the complaint and did not dismiss their claim for back pay against Pilgrim’s Pride.