SMLS’ plaintiffs – Hispanic women and men – started working in the mid-2000s at the Koch Foods poultry processing plant in Morton, Mississippi. The women said they suffered sex harassment, primarily at the hands of their supervisor in the deboning department, Jessie Ickom. They said Ickom groped them on a regular basis, assaulting some of them more aggressively in some cases, and frequently made sexual advances, including offering to pay them for sex. According to the male plaintiffs,  Ickom punched and hit them repeatedly. The workers said they were subjected to racist and sexist comments, and forced to pay for what should have been normal worker rights, like using the bathroom and taking sick days. When they attempted to report the abuse to the plant’s management, Ickom threatened with retaliation.
In March 2010, SMLS filed suit on behalf of 10 plaintiffs, and the 11th plaintiff was represented by co-counsel McDuff. The suit alleged sexual harassment, retaliation, and national origin and race discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Mississippi negligence law. (Cazorla v. Koch Foods of Mississippi, LLC, et. al., Civ. No. 3:10-cv-135 (S.D. Miss.)). The suit noted that Hispanic workers were subjected to mistreatment because of their race and national origin.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit pointed out in a 2017 decision that the plaintiffs’ allegations fit a pattern. “In fact, substantial evidence suggests that serious abuse is all too common in many industries reliant on immigrant workers, including the modern-day poultry industry,” the Court said.
The decision cited several reports by prominent media and human rights groups that documented widespread abuse of agricultural workers going back years if not decades. OXFAM and Human Rights Watch reported that harsh working conditions are endemic to the poultry industry, which relies on highly vulnerable immigrants and refugees, who are often too afraid to complain. A separate report from PBS’ Frontline, titled “Rape in the Fields,” aired interviews with female Hispanic farmworkers, who were likewise too frightened to report their abuse.
Under the three-year consent decree entered by Judge Daniel P. Jordan III in 2018 to resolve both the claims of SMLS’s clients and the EEOC, Koch Foods must provide not only $3.75 million in monetary relief for the plaintiffs. In addition, Koch Foods will take specific actions to prevent future discrimination, including providing anti-discrimination training to employees; creating a 24-hour hotline for reporting discrimination complaints in English and Spanish; and posting anti-discrimination policies and notices in its workplace in English and Spanish.
In an article in the National Law Review, EEOC attorney Marsha Rucker said the settlement should act as as a cautionary tale. “The significant monetary award, the corrective measures in this decree, including EEOC monitoring, should prevent this kind of alleged misconduct in the future.”