Saucedo v. John Hancock Life & Health Insurance
The Washington Supreme Court ruled that farm land owners can’t turn a blind eye to farm workers’ being intimidated.
Worker Justice – IMPACT LITIGATION
An apple orchard foreman regularly carried a loaded pistol at work and fired it to intimidate workers. A group of farm workers were fired after their employer identified them as the people who had complained about the foreman’s behavior. Columbia Legal Services represented the workers on their retaliation claims as well as in class claims for violations of the Farm Labor Contractors Act. The entity employing the farm workers had contracted to provide labor to farm the orchards owned by other corporations. The entity was not licensed and failed to give basic disclosures about the working conditions.
The federal District Court ruled in the workers’ favor. Ruling on a certified question from the federal court, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a “farm labor contractor” includes entities that are paid a fee to manage farming operations, including hiring the work force, on land owned by third parties. In addition, the Court ruled that any person who uses the services of an unlicensed farm labor contractor is liable for violations, even if the person lacks knowledge that the entity was not licensed.
The ruling made clear that owners of farm land are responsible for the actions of the entities they contract with to grow and harvest fruit and may not turn a blind eye to whether those entities are licensed and comply with state law. As a result, there was an increase in licensed contractors and more workers are entitled to the basic protections of state law. The workers collected a $1,000,000 judgment.
Farm Worker Advocates Begin Distributing $1 Million in Settlement Funds to Yakima Valley Workers
On Sunday, farm worker advocates from Columbia Legal Services began distributing funds to over 700 farm workers in the Yakima Valley who were on the winning side of a hard-fought class action settlement. After years of litigation in the Saucedo v. NW Management case, an agreement was reached in May whereby the companies agreed to pay all the damages awarded to the farm workers – just over $1 million which Judge Thomas O. Rice quickly approved so the funds could be promptly distributed.
More than 300 workers and their families celebrated their victory with advocates and began receiving settlement checks on Sunday at Radio KDNA in Granger. Each worker will receive approximately $1,000 – $3,000 depending on how many seasons she or he worked.
“I feel that we did something right for everybody. Not just by calling police, but by getting everyone together in a group and speaking up,” said Sandra Saucedo who is one of the class members and is pictured right with her family and other class members. “We have rights. We don’t have to be afraid. We have the right to speak up.”
The class action was filed in 2012, after a group of ten farm workers alleged they were fired by their employer, NW Management, in retaliation for calling 911 because their foreman was routinely displaying and shooting his gun in the orchards to intimidate the workers and cheat them of their wages. In 2013, Judge Rice awarded the class of 722 farmworkers $1,004,000 in damages against NW Management and the orchard owners, for violations of state law protecting farm workers. In March 2016, the Washington Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the farm workers by upholding Judge Rice’s decision.
“It takes remarkable courage for farm workers to stand up to protect themselves, fight for their rights, and get paid for their work,” said Lori Isley, Directing Attorney with the Working Families Project at Columbia Legal Services who represented the farm worker plaintiffs and were on hand to help distribute checks. “These brave farm workers stood together to achieve justice not only for themselves, but for future workers.”
“Things won’t change unless we stand up and fight for them,” Yakima Mayor Avina Gutierrez, who also spoke at the event, told the Yakima Herald-Republic. “This is one important step to move forward.”
Advocates will continue seeking class members who did not attend Sunday’s event through mail, radio, and newspaper advertising. Farm workers who worked for NW Management at the Alexander or Independence orchards near Sunnyside, Washington, in 2009, 2010, or 2011 are encouraged to contact Columbia Legal Services at 1-800-631-1323 x 802.