The Washington Supreme Court today announced a unanimous decision in favor of farmworkers who were threatened by a gun-toting foreman and fired after reporting his practice to law enforcement. The Court was tasked with answering two legal questions involving the definition of a “farm labor contractor” under Washington’s Farm Labor Contractor Act (FLCA) and whether the agribusiness defendants “knowingly” used the contractor. The Court answered both questions in the affirmative, supporting the farmworkers.
The class action lawsuit was filed in 2012, after a group of ten farmworkers alleged they were fired by their employer, NW Management and Realty Services, Inc. (NW Management), in retaliation for contacting authorities because their foreman was routinely displaying and shooting his gun in the orchards to intimidate the workers and cheat them of their wages. Several of the fired farmworkers had worked at the same orchards for more than a decade.
In 2013, a federal judge awarded the class of 722 farmworkers $1,004,000 in damages against NW Management and the orchard owners, affiliates of the John Hancock Insurance company, for violations of state law protecting farm workers. Additional worker claims, including the retaliatory firing claims, were settled by the parties at the time. As a result of today’s decision, the case will return to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and, based on the Washington Supreme Court’s definitive ruling, the 2013 judgment is likely to be upheld and each worker will receive between $1,000 – $3,000 depending on how many seasons she or he worked.
“This resounding Washington Supreme Court decision sends a clear message that absentee land owners will be held responsible for violations committed by unlicensed labor contractors,” said Lori Isley, Directing Attorney with the Working Families Project at Columbia Legal Services which represented the farmworker plaintiffs. “These hard-working farmworkers courageously stood up to their employer not only to win justice for themselves, but to protect future workers.”
Previously, the federal court found the affiliates of John Hancock Insurance leased the Alexander and Independence orchards near Sunnyside, Washington, to a California company, Farmland Management Services, which then subleased the orchards to NW Management. Because John Hancock Insurance paid entities to manage and farm its land, including hiring and employing farmworkers, the court found the company and by extension, Farmland, used the services of an unlicensed farm labor contractor, NW Management. The companies made legal arguments that the law should not apply to them, but both courts disagreed. Had the companies’ arguments prevailed, any corporate farmer would have been able to avoid Washington State law requirements providing basic protections for farmworkers.
The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries and the Washington Employment Lawyers Association both submitted amicus briefs in support of the plaintiffs.
Farmworkers who worked for NW Management at the Alexander or Independence orchards near Sunnyside, Washington, in 2009, 2010, or 2011 are encouraged to contact the attorneys for the workers, Columbia Legal Services, at 1-800-631-1323 x 802.