Going into a motion hearing yesterday, attorneys for Smithfield Foods might have expected a quick ruling in their favor. After all, hours earlier the company’s plant had been placed under the federal government’s Defense Production Act. The hopes and desires of an activist group and a mystery plaintiff being promoted in its lawsuit won’t seem to account for much after DPA enactment.
But after a motion hearing Thursday, attorneys for the Rural Community Workers Alliance had managed to keep their lawsuit against Smithfield alive and the court was still considering whether to allow one plaintiff to proceed while only being known by the pseudonym “Jane Doe.”
At the hearing, attorneys for Smithfield told the federal judge that the company is implementing the new federal guidelines for meat plants as quickly as it can at its Milan, MO pork processing plant, which is the subject of the lawsuit. None of Smithfield’s employees at Milan have yet tested positive for COVID-19 nor has anyone in Sullivan County, MO.
Plaintiffs base their request for an injunction on “risk of harm” arguments.
At issue is whether the plaintiffs should be granted a preliminary injunction against the Smithfield plant at Milan, MO, or should the entire filing be tossed. The Milan facility was previously part of the Premium Standard Farms, then the second-largest pork producer and sixth largest processor in the United States. It was acquired by Smithfield in 2007.
Smithfield attorneys, in written motions and during a 90-minute hearing Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri, tried to explain that under the DPA, the court must defer to the Secretary of Agriculture.
The DPA tasks Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue with keeping enough meat and poultry plants open to feed the American people. That won’t work, according to the Smithfield attorneys, if too many inconsistences are laid down and if they undermine the “critical infrastructure during the national emergency.”
The activist group called the Smithfield arguments “flimsy.” The court neither acted on the injunction nor did he flush the case.
He gave Smithfield just 24 hours to respond to a motion allowing “Jane Doe” to “proceed under a pseudonym.”
Under American jurisprudence, where you are supposed to be able to confront those making accusations about you, the plaintiffs acknowledge that allowing parties to only be identified by a pseudonym is something only allowed under “limited circumstances.”
“Jane Doe faces real and serious risks if her identity is exposed,” plaintiff attorneys say. “She has personally experienced retaliation from her supervisors at Smithfield for raising concernings ‘much more minor’ than her allegations in this lawsuit.” She claims Smithfield supervisors have “singled out” employees who sued the company for disciplinary action
She contends the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) has recognized the meatpacking industry for its tendency to frequently retaliate against employees who speak out on safety issues.
“The GAO reported that fears of retaliation are so prevalent in the industry that workers at many meat and poultry processing plants are fearful of punishment by their employers if they ‘risk to use the bathroom too frequently,’ ” according to court documents.
No specific information about when and where “Jane Doe” might have encountered any retaliation is provided in the plaintiff’s motion brief. It says courts have “often recognized workers’ reasonable fears of reprisal and retaliation, like Jane Doe’s fears as a factor cutting sharply in favor of allowing anonymity in some form during a proceeding.”
Plaintiff attorneys say retaliatory practices “are common across the entire workplace at the (Milan) plant,” especially with her seeking an order “to adjust (Smithfield) practices across the entire planet for the benefit of workers and fo the benefit of the public generally.”
The plaintiffs claim it is little for the public to learn from Jane Doe’s identify and allowing her participation “without fear of reprisals.”
Smithfield’s deadline for responding to all the Jane Doe claims is today. Judge David Gregory Kays has not indicated when a ruling on the motions might be expected. He was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush.
Two weeks ago, Smithfield ceased operations at Sioux Falls, SD after 800 of 3100 employees tested positive for COVID-19. SD Gov. Kristi Noem said she expects Smithfield to re-open “in a manner of days.”
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