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Juana Montano-Pérez, et al. v. Durrett Cheese Sales, Inc.

A dozen Latino workers at a Tennessee cheese factory went weeks without pay and endured an abusive work environment before demanding paychecks from an employer, who then had them arrested, jailed and threatened with deportation.

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit charging that Durrett Cheese Sales of Manchester, Tenn., its president and several members of the Coffee County Sheriff's Department conspired to violate the rights of the workers by falsely charging them with trespassing after they stopped working and demanded paychecks that had been delayed several weeks.

Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee in Nashville, the lawsuit alleges violation of federal law, including the Fair Labor Standards Act. It also alleges violation of the Tennessee Human Rights Act, infliction of emotional distress and malicious prosecution.

Durrett hired indigent Mexican workers to perform various jobs at the factory, including the slicing, packaging and processing of cheese.

The company specifically targeted members of the Mixteco indigenous group in the Manchester area to work at the factory. These workers were subjected to a hostile, intimidating and abusive work environment, where they were referred to as "stupid Indians" and "donkeys." Non-Latino workers did not experience the same delay in their paychecks, threats or derogatory remarks.

In a precedent-setting decision, the court denied a motion to dismiss the retaliation claims against members of the sheriff’s department named in the lawsuit. The court found the workers provided "significant factual support" in their allegations that they were arrested and reported to immigration authorities because of their complaints about pay. The court also found the workers had adequately alleged that their Fourth Amendment rights were violated by arrests without probable cause.