An Eastern Washington dairy, 12 former employees and the United Farmworkers of America have all agreed to walk away from a legal battle after nearly a decade .
In June 2009, four former employees of the Ruby Ridge Dairy near Pasco, Wash., sued, claiming owners Dick and Ruby Bengen did not provide meal breaks or drinkable water, threatened them and fired them for refusing to disown the union.
The Bengens’ attorney at the time called the claims “patently false.” They were later joined in the suit by other employees.
“There’s a moral obligation that you have to fight evil — wrong is wrong,” Dick Bengen, owner of the dairy, told the Capital Press on May 8. “That was the basis of continuing this.”
The remaining plaintiffs, the Bengens and the dairy and the UFW agreed to a “walk-away agreement,” effective May 3, said Dan Barnhart, the attorney representing the Bengens and the dairy.
“Everybody released all the claims they had against each other and walked away,” Barnhart said. “Nobody had to pay any money of any kind for damages, attorney fees or costs or anything. They all walked away from each other.”
The dairy had previously offered a similar settlement, Barnhart said.
The trial was scheduled to start May 20 in Pasco. Barnhart said the union’s attorney called and offered the walk-away settlement.
“Their proposal was that it would be confidential; we agreed to settle a walk-away on the condition that it not be confidential,” Barnhart said.
The Bengens agreed to the settlement because “they are in the business of running a dairy, not litigating claims,” Barnhart said. “They did not file this lawsuit, this lawsuit was brought to their door 10 years ago. They felt the need to defend themselves and they did that.”
“We made them an offer a long, long, long, long time ago,” Bengen said. “And then we just said, ‘OK, it’s up to them now to walk away, not us.’ We’d spent all the money for trial prep, we’re ready to go. My assumption is they wouldn’t have done this if they didn’t know they were in trouble.”
The union said the workers — Margarito Saucedo Martinez, Miguel Espiritu, Elvis Flamenco, Miguel Cuevas, Rafael Munez, Armando Herrera, Saul Solorio, Cirilo Ramirez, Teresita Anguiano, Manuel Reynaga, Jesus Perez and Gildardo Perez — will receive back pay that they contend they lost from not receiving their rest and meal periods, according to the UFW website. The unpaid wages will be paid by an anonymous supporter, according to the UFW.
The anonymous supporter “was so outraged that Ruby Ridge (would) compel workers to look at having to go to court for upwards of six weeks, lose employment and was very concerned about the message this was sending to other dairy workers,” Erik Nicholson, UFW national vice president in Tacoma, Wash., told the Capital Press.
The union also says the dairy’s 2011 lawsuit against the UFW and the workers was filed in retaliation for workers seeking to recover their wages.
Nicholson said it’s a satisfactory outcome.
“The workers have been made whole, the litigation is done and we can now focus on the task at hand — making sure workers are not subjected to retaliation, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, a multitude of other challenges they report facing being employed on these dairies,” he said.
Bengen said the settlement was the outcome the dairy was hoping for.
“They wanted a union on this dairy — there is no union on this dairy,” he said.
Bengen declined to provide an estimated cost of the lawsuit, but said it has been “extremely expensive.”
During the course of the lawsuit, production suffered and cows were lost and injured due to sabotage and neglect due to employee misconduct, Bengen said.
Bengen said they felt they had a trusting relationship with employees before the lawsuit. It’s taken a long time to restore that trust, he said.
“We’re pretty much back to there again, but I don’t know if we’ll ever be as trusting as we were,” he said. “Employees are the backbone of your operation, at least the way we operate. It’s been tough getting that back in our minds and hearts. ... It’ll never be the same again, but it’s an acceptable state.”
The dairy has about 45 employees and 4,300 to 4,400 cows.
“This didn’t affect just me, Ruby and our family,” Bengen said. “It also affected a lot of employees who were also hurt by the situation.”
He urges other farmers, ranchers and dairy owners to keep records of their obligations as employers.
“Our whole problem was not that they didn’t get their 10-minute breaks or that they didn’t take their lunch periods, it was that we did not record them,” he said. “We had a lot of witnesses, we had enough to make them back out, but let’s just say we didn’t have them all recorded.”
The dairy has made changes to address the situation, Bengen said.
“Anybody that doesn’t, the writing’s on the wall — it’s foolish,” he said. “There are trip-and-fall lawyers all over the place that are going to be looking at 10-minute breaks and lunch periods. Once they sue you, the monkey’s on your back to prove that they took them. They don’t have to prove that they didn’t take them.”
Barnhart, the Bengens’ attorney, also recommends farmers and ranchers take extra care to document their compliance with all employee laws, particularly wage-and-hour laws.
“Even if you do everything right, you could still be sued, and it could still cost you a lot of money,” Barnhart said. “So do your best to make sure you can prove you’ve done everything right and you have it as well-documented as you can.”
Barnhart said the Bengens defended themselves out of principle.
“They really were willing to do whatever it took to have truth be known, defend themselves and not capitulate to the tactics the union was using,” he said. “I think this outcome 10 years later shows that it paid off. Their willingness to fight for what was right is demonstrated by the fact that at the end of the day, the union and employees’ various claims made against them all vanished.”
Bengen said he and Ruby would like to mentor the next generations on the dairy.
The entire dairy is “elated” to get back to normal again, he said.
“When you’re a dairy farmer, you have hundreds of things every day that you have to take care of,” he said. “Every day, something came up about this that we had to deal with. But I do not regret doing it.”