A lawsuit accusing two Washington farms of mistreating Thai guestworkers has again been thrown out by a federal judge after it was revived last year.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission failed to prove that Green Acres Farms and Valley Fruit Orchards of Yakima County discriminated against the employees due to their race or national origin, the judge said.
U.S. District Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson has ruled the federal government lacked sufficient evidence that Thai workers hired through the H-2A program were treated worse than other employees, or that the farms should be held liable for the actions of a labor contractor, Global Horizons.
Though the farms have again succeeded in getting the lawsuit dismissed, they’ve paid a high financial and emotional price for hiring the labor contractor in 2005, said Brendan Monahan, their attorney.
“We don’t question Global Horizons really was a bad actor,” Monahan said. “We contend the growers have also been victims of Global Horizons.”
While Green Acre Farms still grows tree fruits and several other crops, Valley Fruit Orchards ceased operations after selling its assets in 2018.
There’s “no question” the EEOC complaint and other litigation involving the now-defunct labor contractor caused Valley Fruit Orchards to “wind up its business affairs,” Monahan said.
The experience of these two Washington farms should be instructive for other growers, he said. “Do your due diligence whenever you do business with a farm labor contractor.”
The growers have spent a lot of money to defend themselves against the EEOC’s “unfounded” accusations and willingness to expend “tremendous resources” in the case, Monahan said.
“This case has always been based on an incendiary accusation of human trafficking in the Yakima orchards but there has never been any evidence to substantiate this theory,” he said.
The EEOC did not respond to requests for comment.
The EEOC’s argument that local Hispanic workers enjoyed better conditions than the Thai workers isn’t supported by statistical evidence and the anecdotal testimony submitted by the agency amounts to inadmissible hearsay, according to the judge’s recent ruling.
The federal agency also cannot “leapfrog” from an earlier judgment against Global Horizons to find that the growers are also legally responsible for unlawful discrimination or a hostile work environment, the judge said.
Global Horizons, the labor contractor, accepted a $7.7 million default order against it in 2015 after being unable to afford its legal defense, which occurred a year after a lawsuit against the two farms had originally been dismissed.
However, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals resurrected that EEOC complaint against the growers in 2019.
Because the farms didn’t have a say in the Global Horizons default judgment, they weren’t given a “full and fair opportunity” to defend themselves in court, which would violate their due process rights, the judge said.
The EEOC also hasn’t demonstrated the Washington farms were joint employers who knew or should have known the labor contractor was treating the foreign guestworkers worse than other employees, according to the ruling.
Litigation over Global Horizons and its farmer clients began a decade ago, when the federal government initially accused the labor contractor’s managers of criminal human trafficking violations.
While the criminal charges were dropped after the government acknowledged it couldn’t prove them beyond a reasonable doubt, the EEOC continued pursuing civil lawsuits against Global Horizons and its clients.
Growers should enter into written contracts with labor contractors that clearly delineate each party’s responsibilities and indemnify the farm from legal liability, Monahan said. The labor contractor should also be insured, otherwise that indemnification guarantee is meaningless.
Farmers should also ensure that labor contractors and the entities they use to recruit workers are licensed by the appropriate state agency — especially in Washington, where the failure to do carries steep penalties, he said.
“It poses an existential risk for every Washington farmer who hopes to use the H-2A program by utilizing any recruitment agency at all,” Monahan said.