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In a ruling filed last week, a Fayetteville federal judge refused to remove certain wage-related claims in a case brought against a drug rehabilitation program and Hendren Plastics Inc.

The defendants -- Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Program (DARP) and Hendren Plastics -- filed a motion to dismiss all allegations against them due to insufficient claims. U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks denied their request as related to alleged state wages and overtime pay violations.

While the defendants argue the plaintiffs -- a group alleging they worked without pay for Hendren through DARP -- did not claim that there's a valid employee-employer relationship between the rehab clients and the companies, "it seems to me he's saying at least the possibility exists" that they be treated and tried as employees, said Robert Steinbuch, professor at the W.H. Bowen School of Law.

In the 15-page document filed June 27, Brooks refused to throw out two claims that DARP and Hendren Plastics violated the Arkansas Minimum Wage Act by failing to pay workers the minimum wage and overtime. Brooks agreed to toss out two claims he called "implausible" involving slavery and human trafficking.

Steinbuch disagreed with the judge's decision to act as the jury before a trial date is set. In the past decade, more courts have adopted a belief that "if it seems ridiculous, we can get rid of it," he said. "We're not supposed to be making these claims when there's no jury."

The plaintiffs claim they worked for no pay and lived in fear of incarceration if they did not do as the drug program coordinators said. According to filings, before the rehab clients are enrolled in the DARP program, they sign a contract agreeing to the terms of the program: that they are not classified as workers and won't receive wages. Instead, the workers' pay is diverted to cover rehab's overhead costs: food, rent and services.

"They had a lousy choice. Granted, it's a lousy choice, but it's still a choice," Steinbuch said. "If you're stuck between a rock and a hard place, that's not slavery."

Hendren Plastics, owned by state Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren, is based in Gravette. Hendren did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Shortly after the first claim was filed in Benton County, Hendren said in an interview that he cut ties with DARP, which he had supported as a path to a second chance in life for people with criminal backgrounds.

"I saw the allegations against my company, and I made the decision it's not worth the damage," he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Business on 07/07/2018

Print Headline: Claims allowed in rehab lawsuit

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