Lawsuit accusing Perdue managers of illegal hiring moves to Md.

A federal class action lawsuit accusing managers at Perdue Inc. of conspiring to depress wages by hiring hundreds of illegal immigrants will move forward in Maryland instead of in Alabama, where it was filed a year ago.

The lawsuit against former and current human resource employees and supervisors of the Eastern Shore poultry processor was filed last March on behalf of hundreds or even thousands of hourly workers at 16 Perdue plants in Maryland and nine other states.

A U.S. District Court judge in Alabama granted the defendants' request to move the case to Maryland, where the company has its headquarters in Salisbury.

"A substantial part of the events giving rise to the claim occurred at the Perdue headquarters in Maryland," the judge, Mark E. Fuller, said in the Friday opinion.

The case will be heard in U.S. District Court in Baltimore by Judge Richard D. Bennett. A trial has not yet been set.

The named plaintiffs — Perdue employees at processing plants in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee — accuse company supervisors of organizing a hiring scheme in which human resources staff are told to accept fake work authorization documents or to lie about the existence of such documents. By doing so, Perdue has hired more than 500 undocumented workers in the past four years, the lawsuit said. The alleged scheme, which would violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, has increased Perdue's profitability and allowed defendants to earn higher wages, the lawsuit claims.

A spokesman for Perdue, the third-largest poultry company in the United States, said Tuesday that the company, which was not named as a defendant, continues to maintain that the lawsuit is without merit.

In a statement posted on the company's website last April, Perdue says it hires only workers who prove they are authorized to work in the United States and trains human resources staff extensively in procedures to verify employment eligibility.

"We go the extra step of electronically verifying Social Security numbers and work authorization numbers against government records, and have been participating in the government's E-Verify program and its predecessor for more than a decade," the statement says. "If we find at any time that an associate has presented false documentation, we terminate that person's employment."

Howard W. Foster, an attorney for the named plaintiffs, said Tuesday he did not expect the change of venue to affect the case.

"We want to pursue our case as promptly as we can," Foster said.

Plaintiffs are asking the court to require the firing of any illegal immigrants at Perdue, and are also seeking judgment in an amount three times the damages caused by illegal hiring.

An attorney for one of the 15 named defendants declined to comment on the case Tuesday.

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