A federal judge won’t invite the Washington Supreme Court to second-guess his pre-trial decision favorable to Sarbanand Farms and co-defendant CSI Visa Processing of Mexico.
U.S. District Judge John Coughenour affirmed on Thursday a ruling that reduces potential penalties faced by CSI, Sarbanand and Sarbanand’s parent company, Munger Brothers of California.
Columbia Legal Services and Seattle law firm Schroeter, Goldmark and Bender asked Coughenour to reconsider or defer to the state’s high court. The attorneys argued Coughenour’s ruling was based on an “unsettled” interpretation of Washington’s Farm Labor Contractor Act.
If the state law was “unsettled,” the attorneys should have sought an opinion from the state Supreme Court before moving for a decision in federal court, Coughenour wrote.
The ruling blocks the plaintiffs from getting the Supreme Court involved in another farm labor dispute waged in federal court.
In previous cases, federal lawsuits led to Supreme Court rulings that broadened pay for piece-rate workers and extended the farm labor contractor act to more agricultural employers.
In the Sarbanand suit, the main issue is how some 600 workers in 2017 were treated and fed at the blueberry farm in Whatcom County, near the Canadian border. The farm, owned by David and Kable Munger, denies all allegations. A trial is scheduled for next year.
Another issue is whether CSI needed a license issued by the Washington Department of Labor and Industries. L&I oversight protects farmworkers from exploitation.
Coughenour ruled that CSI should have had a state license to send 103 workers straight from Mexico to Washington. But CSI didn’t need a license for 553 workers that worked for Munger in California before transferring to Washington, the judge found.
The ruling cut potential fines for violating the state law to about $250,000 from about $1.5 million.
L&I filed a brief asking Coughenour to defer to the state court.
If Coughenour’s ruling stands, farm labor contractors will be able to get around Washington’s oversight by first taking workers to another state, the agency argued.
CSI said it processed visas for workers selected by Munger and didn’t do traditional labor contractor duties, such as recruiting and transporting workers.
Munger paid CSI $85 per worker, but did not pay CSI another fee for workers who transferred to Washington, according to court records.
An L&I official told CSI it didn’t need a state license, according to court records. A higher-level agency official said that was bad advice.