Civil and Human Rights

Burrell v. Lackawanna Recycling Center, Inc.

In Burrell v. Lackawanna Recycling Center, Inc., the Third Circuit is considering whether the practice of forcing child-support debtors to work in horrific conditions in the county recycling center for almost no pay constitutes involuntary servitude in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Case Summary

In Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, individuals who are held in civil contempt for failure to pay child support are detained in the county jail until they pay a portion of their arrears set by state court order. In order to be eligible for work release—the only way these individuals can pay down their debts and secure their freedom—the debtors are forced to work in abominable conditions in the Lackawanna Recycling Center. For just five dollars per day—approximately sixty-two-and-a-half cents per hour—they separate trash and recyclables on conveyor belts. As a result of this work, they frequently break out in skin rashes, suffer wounds from sharp pieces of glass, and vomit from the stench of their abhorrent working conditions.

After being forced to labor in these conditions, William Burrell, Jr., Joshua Huzzard, and Dampsey Stuckey filed suit against the County, the Recycling Center, and several individuals involved in the enforcement of this scheme. They alleged that Lackawanna County’s system of forced labor for civil contemnors constitutes involuntary servitude in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment and various statutes.  The district court dismissed their claims, holding that, contrary to their allegations, Burrell, Huzzard, and Stuckey could in fact pay a portion of their arrears to purge themselves of civil contempt and walk free. Burrell, Huzzard, and Stuckey challenged that ruling in the U.S Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

CAC, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania, filed an amici curiae brief in support of Burrell, Huzzard, and Stuckey, arguing that the district court’s decision flies in the face of the text and history of the Thirteenth Amendment.  As our brief explains, the labor arrangement with the Recycling Center in Lackawanna County closely resembles a system of forced labor that the Supreme Court has affirmatively held violates the Thirteenth Amendment and that the Thirty-Ninth Congress expressly prohibited by statute: peonage.

Our brief begins by describing the text and history of the Thirteenth Amendment and the history of peonage in the United States.  While a chief goal of the Thirteenth Amendment was to bring an official end to the economic institution of chattel slavery, its text goes even further: “[n]either slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”  The term “involuntary servitude” was included to prohibit all forms of labor compelled by physical or legal coercion.

Although the Framers of the Thirteenth Amendment intended its ban on involuntary servitude to sweep broadly, the practice of peonage continued even after the Amendment became law, particularly in the American Southwest. Peonage was originally used to conscript Indigenous peoples into labor for colonists, as they laid claim to a land that was not theirs. It later reared its head again through the Black Codes, as southern states implemented a system of strict vagrancy laws that required Black people to be under contract at all times. In response to such practices, Congress enacted the Anti-Peonage Act pursuant to its authority under Section 2 of the Thirteenth Amendment.

As our brief describes, in a series of cases in the first half of the twentieth century, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Anti-Peonage Act and its use to end forced labor practices. In upholding the Act, the Court repeatedly made clear that it is the inability to walk away from labor, even labor that is unquestionably owed by some debt or agreement, that renders it involuntary servitude. In determining whether a particular labor arrangement constituted involuntary servitude, the Court consistently examined how the labor arrangement operated in the real world, not the label it was given or its purported goals.

Finally, our brief turns to the flaws in the district court’s decision. Without considering these precedents, no less the history of peonage and the Thirteenth Amendment, the district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims. In the district court’s view, the plaintiffs had a “choice” to pay the purge amount set by state court orders rather than work in the Recycling Center. This reasoning not only disregards their allegations that they lacked the funds to pay the purge amounts at the time they were ordered to work in the Recycling Center—allegations that must be credited on a motion to dismiss—but it also defies logic: no individual who could pay his way to freedom would choose to work in the dangerous conditions of the Recycling Center for just five dollars per day.

Moreover, as discussed above, the Supreme Court has made clear that the ability of a person held in peonage to actually repay a debt is irrelevant to the question of whether the practice constitutes peonage in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment and statutes enacted to enforce it. Thus, it ultimately does not even matter if the plaintiffs in fact had sufficient funds to pay their arrears but for some unfathomable reason chose instead to expose themselves to the hazardous and vomit-inducing conditions of the Recycling Center for essentially no pay. What matters is that a debtor is forced to work until he or she repays the debt. Such is the case here: child support debtors will continue to sit in prison unless they work in the Recycling Center to repay their continuously accumulating debts.

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