A federal judge has expressed sympathy for plaintiffs who claim the U.S. Department of Labor coerced them into signing agreements to settle charges they violated federal labor law. A ruling in their favor could help curtail abusive tactics employed by the department.
Last year, two farms — Pan-American Berry Growers and B&G Ditchen — paid the Labor Department $210,000 to settle allegations they had harvested blueberries in violation of federal minimum wage law.
The agency had threatened to invoke the “hot goods” provision of labor law, under which the government can block the shipment of products that are made unlawfully.
The Labor Department also told the farms’ customers that the crops were subject to the hot goods provision, after which the buyers refused to accept delivery.
The growers, whose livelihoods were at stake as their perishable crops were held hostage, felt compelled to settle.
During oral arguments Dec. 3, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin said that the two farms had a strong case that the payment deals were made under duress.
“I’m telling you candidly the growers had very good grounds for injunctive relief,” Coffin said during oral arguments in Eugene, Ore.
Coffin said he was troubled the farmers had to waive their rights to appeal and couldn’t simply place the funds in escrow until they had a chance to defend themselves.
Jeremiah Miller, the Labor Department’s attorney, said the tactic was the department’s way of driving a hard bargain. In our view it was nothing short of extortion.
Though sympathetic, Coffin was at the same time curious why the farmers waited a year before coming to the court. The plaintiffs could have immediately filed for a temporary restraining order seeking to block the agency’s actions.
“DOL was holding the sword over your clients’ head,” Coffin told the farmers’ attorney.
Blocked from shipping their perishable crop precisely when time was short, the DoL had made the farmers an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Coffin is now considering whether the settlements will be vacated. There’s no indication when the decision will come.
Miller said it would be unfair to overturn the consent decrees now because the farmworkers in the case have long dispersed and the Labor Department would be prejudiced in trying to prove its case.
Its coercive tactics seemed designed to preclude the possibility that it would ever have to prove its case, or show that it ever had a legitimate cause.
By extorting growers to admit alleged wrongdoing, the department abridged the due process rights of those growers.
We hope Coffin will give producers the justice they were denied.