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A lawsuit involving clients of a rehabilitation program who claim they weren't paid for their work at an Arkansas chicken plant was moved last week to an Oklahoma federal court where similar cases are awaiting trial.

The lawsuit, filed Oct. 23, accused chicken producer Simmons Foods and Oklahoma-based rehab programs of not paying wages to drug court participants in violation of the Arkansas Minimum Wage Act, protections against involuntary servitude outlined in the Arkansas Constitution, and individual rights outlined in the Arkansas Civil Rights Act.

On Feb. 27, a federal judge in Arkansas ordered the portion of the case involving Simmons and the drug rehabilitation program Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery be transferred to Oklahoma. Other portions of the case were severed and remanded.

While the move to a court in Oklahoma may be troublesome for some Arkansas attorneys, it's more efficient for the court, said Robert Steinbuch, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock W.H. Bowen School of Law.

"Attorneys generally like to be in the location in which the issues arose," Steinbuch said. "Because generally the courts are more sympathetic when you're dealing with parties from the community."

The lawsuit, originally filed in Benton County Circuit Court, was moved to U.S. District Court in Fayetteville on Nov. 6.

Almost four months later, U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks ordered elements of the case involving Simmons Foods and the rehab program moved to the Northern District of Oklahoma for "possible consolidation."

Claims in the lawsuit against Hendren Plastics, owned by the majority leader of the Arkansas Senate, Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, and a second rehab program, the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program according to the 18-page document, were severed and remanded.

Shortly after these allegations surfaced, Hendren publicly terminated Hendren Plastics' relationship with the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program.

Under the recommendation of Brooks, plaintiffs Mark Fochtman and Shane O'Neal must file new, separate complaints against Simmons and Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery in Oklahoma federal court. If the renewed complaints are not accepted, they default to Arkansas.

The law firm representing the Arkansas plaintiffs did not respond to a request for comment.

Steinbuch, who's taught as a law professor for 12 years, compared the drug court case to a recent New York case. It involved a halfway house program, funded by the city, that mistreated its residents, Steinbuch said.

"One of the problems that can arise with such programs is abuse," he said.

Court documents show the plaintiffs, who were taken to Simmons plants daily from a rehab facility in Tahlequah, Okla., claimed they worked under dirty, dangerous, demanding conditions without pay, accusing the defendants of fraud, human trafficking and involuntary servitude.

The Center for Investigative Reporting published a story recounting some of the harsh conditions the rehab clients faced. According to interviews, participants in the program lived in fear of being returned to drug court or prison.

Supporters say the agreement offered repeat drug court offenders with addiction issues a second chance. Critics say companies used them as a labor pool, often for hard-to-fill jobs, with their pay going to the drug-rehab program.

Business on 03/07/2018

Print Headline: Rehab pay suit moved to Oklahoma

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