Justices Say Inmates Can’t Sue Private Employer for Unpaid Wages During Incarceration

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The Indiana Lawyer on 10/12/2016

The Indiana Supreme Court granted transfer and affirmed Wednesday a trial court’s decision to dismiss a complaint seeking unpaid wages brought by inmates who claim they were underpaid while working for a private company while they were in prison.

During their incarceration at the Indiana Department of Correction’s Correctional Industrial Facility, inmates Chuck Adams and Charles Howard were permitted to work at a privately owned brake shop operated by Meritor Heavy Vehicle Systems LLC on the property of the industrial facility.

However, Adams and Howard claim they were not paid the “prevailing wage” during their employment and, therefore, filed a complaint against Meritor for unpaid wages. Indiana Code requires that offenders who are employed by private companies be paid at least the prevailing wage for the type of work they are engaged in, including wage increases for overtime.

Meritor filed a motion to dismiss the wage claims, arguing that state code does not create a private right of action. The Marion Superior Court granted the motion to dismiss, prompting Adams and Howard to appeal to the Indiana Court of Appeals, which reversed the dismissal in a split decision.

In its reversal, the appellate court wrote that Adams and Howard did have a private right of action and that private enterprises are subject to the Wage Payment Statute.

However, Court of Appeals Judge Melissa May dissented, writing that the Marion Superior Court was correct in its decision to dismiss the wage claims because Indiana Code does not explicitly create a private right of action for offenders.

In its Wednesday per curiam opinion, the Indiana Supreme Court agreed with May’s dissent. The high court granted transfer in the case of Chuck W. Adams, Charles E. Howard, et al. v. ArvinMeritor, Inc., et al., 49S02-1610-PL-532 and affirmed the trial court’s decision to dismiss the claims. The court also summarily affirmed other parts of the Court of Appeals’ opinions addressing other claims brought by Adams.