The Ninth Circuit affirmed today that federal judge Stanley A. Bastian, in an earlier decision, had correctly ruled that a lawsuit involving over 600 Yakima Valley farm workers may proceed as a class action. The unanimous three-judge panel affirmed Judge Bastian’s April 2015 ruling stating:
“We agree with the district court that Mercer’s failure to disclose information pertaining to H-2A jobs, such as the existence or pay-rate of such work, may constitute false or misleading information, and therefore poses a common question of liability.”
“A reasonable fact finder could conclude that, but for Mercer [Canyon]’s alleged policy of non-disclosure, class members would have had the opportunity to seek H-2A work at the $12 hourly rate.”
You can find a copy of the ruling here. The lawsuit was originally filed in 2014 alleging that Mercer Canyons misled local farm workers when it failed to tell them about available, higher-paying vineyard jobs under the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program and underpaid those who did obtain jobs in violation of federal and state wage laws. Bacilio Ruiz and Jose Amador, two farm workers who filed the lawsuit, worked or tried to get work at Mercer Canyons in 2013 and contend that the corporation failed to inform them that vineyard jobs were available paying $12 an hour, as required by law.
Mercer Canyons, based in Alderdale, WA and one of the largest fruit and vegetable growers on the West Coast, promised the federal government that it would actively recruit and hire local farm workers for the higher paying vineyard jobs. However, the corporation failed to contact its former vineyard employees about the $12/hour vineyard jobs, and turned away hundreds of local farm workers who drove to Mercer’s remote Alderdale office seeking employment. Instead, Mercer hired foreign H-2A workers to do the work even though federal law specifically requires employers to give hiring preference to domestic workers over foreign H-2A workers.
In April 2015, Judge Bastian ruled that the case could proceed as a class action, and approved Mr. Ruiz and Mr. Amador as class representatives. Mercer Canyons appealed that ruling to the Ninth Circuit.
“We’re thrilled with the Ninth Circuit’s ruling and look forward to getting this case on schedule for trial,” said Columbia Legal Services Directing Attorney Lori Isley, who is representing the workers. “Like most other farm workers, our clients’ jobs and wages are vital to support their families, and, after the delay with the appellate court process, they are anxious to tell their story in court and recover the wages they should have been paid.”
The farm workers are asking the court to award both actual and statutory damages for these legal violations. Judge Bastian will schedule the case for trial after consulting with the attorneys for the parties.