We hope a recent federal court decision finally puts a stop to coercive tactics employed by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Three Oregon blueberry growers were coerced in 2012 by the Department of Labor into admitting to wage violations under the threat that their crops would be declared “hot goods.”
Under federal law, “hot goods” — items produced in violation of labor laws — can’t be sold, shipped or accepted for sale.
As their crops were being harvested and readied for shipment, growers were presented with a list of alleged wage and hour violations. They were then given the choice of admitting guilt and paying huge fines or having their crops rot as they awaited an administrative hearing.
They took the deal, but late last year filed suit to have the settlements overturned.
In January U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin recommended vacating the deals because the growers signed them under economic duress.
“Although the government’s use of the hot goods authority is authorized by statute to resolve wage and hour violations, applying such authority in this situation, in effect, prevented defendants from having their day in court,” he said.
The DOL challenged this finding before U.S. District Judge Michael McShane, but he has now rejected the agency’s arguments and vacated the settlements.
In an order April 24, McShane said the situation involved a “highly perishable product at peak harvest,” so any shipping delay “threatened to cripple the growers.”
“Under these circumstances, defendants had no choice but to agree to the consent judgments,” said McShane.
That’s a polite way to explain extortion.
It would be generous to describe the department’s tactics as heavy handed. A review of the department’s own emails indicates it never had much of a case against the growers.
The DOL is reviewing the decision and “considering its options,” according to a spokesman.
While the DOL could appeal the ruling or press its case against the growers and prove the allegations in court.
At this stage, the reasonable course would be to drop the cases and refund the fines and penalties it collected from the farmers.
But we’ve not come to expect the reasonable course from the DOL. The growers wisely stand ready to confront them in court.