Labor Dept. renews, expands litigation against berry farm
The U.S. Labor Department is pursuing a new lawsuit against a Washington blueberry farm that it battled in court last year, and has expanded the litigation to include affiliated companies.
The department claims that Blue Mountain Farms of Walla Walla County, Wash., unlawfully shipped “hot goods” in interstate commerce in 2013 because its blueberries were picked and packed in violation of minimum wage and overtime laws.
The complaint also accuses the farm of failing to properly keep records and of retaliating against workers by laying off those who were interviewed by labor inspectors.
DOL is demanding back wages for the workers, an injunction against similar practices and reimbursement for the cost of litigation.
Last year, the agency sued Blue Mountain and its packing shed operation for allegedly blocking inspectors from entering the property.
At the time, the DOL threatened to use its “hot goods” authority to block shipment of blueberries it alleged were unlawfully produced, but ultimately reconsidered.
Blue Mountain Farms claimed that it tried to cooperate with DOL but then inspectors reneged on an agreement to minimize disrupting harvest operations.
A federal judge ultimately ruled that it’s not an unconstitutional search for inspectors to interview workers who are picking berries due to the “open fields” doctrine. Under the “open fields” doctrine, labor inspectors are able to enter fields that are readily accessible.
However, the judge said the inspectors could not enter packing sheds and similar structures without a warrant.
That litigation was stayed last year, but the DOL recently filed the new complaint seeking back wages in which additional farms are named as defendants.
The complaint claims that the new defendants, Great Columbia Berry Farm and Applegate Orchards, supply Blue Mountain’s packing shed with fruit and are owned or managed by the same individuals: Ryan Brock, Shirley Lott and Brandon Lott.
Tim Bernasek, attorney for Blue Mountain, said the new lawsuit will probably be consolidated with the older case. The original litigation is ongoing because the government is seeking to make permanent an injunction that gives inspectors access to the property.
Bernasek said he’s not surprised that DOL decided to launch the new lawsuit because his clients deny the charges and don’t believe they owe back wages.