The Washington Supreme Court may again be asked to intervene in a federal lawsuit against agricultural employers.

U.S. District Judge John Coughenour in Seattle last month took some of the punch out of a lawsuit against Sarbanand Farms in Sumas and the parent company, Munger Brothers of California.

Columbia Legal Services and Seattle firm Schroeter, Goldmark and Bender filed a motion last week asking Coughenour to reconsider his ruling, or punt the issue to the Supreme Court.

Washington's high court has made several rulings in recent years that originated with federal lawsuits. The decisions have gone against agricultural employees, affecting pay for piece-rate workers and the scope of Washington's Farm Labor Contractors Act.

At issue in the latest case is whether a labor recruiter falls under the act, even when the workers are sent to another state first.

The question stems from a lawsuit alleging poor working conditions and unfair labor practices at Sarbanand in 2017. The farm and Munger deny the allegations. A trial is set for next April.

The suit also names CSI Visa Processing, in Durango, Mexico, and the largest H-2A processing company in Mexico, according to court records.

CSI processed visa applications for about 600 Sarbanand workers in 2017. The lawsuit alleges that CSI failed to get a state license and perform the duties of a labor contractor, such as informing applicants about production standards and working conditions.

About 100 workers came straight from Mexico, while the other 500 worked at a Munger farm or cold storage facility in Central California before moving north to pick blueberries near the Canadian border.

In a pre-trial ruling, Coughenour said CSI should have had a license from Washington to supply the 100 workers, but not the 500 who transferred from California.

Munger paid $85 for each worker CSI supplied, but didn't pay an additional fee when the workers moved to Washington. Since CSI didn't get a transfer fee, it didn't need a Washington license for those workers, Coughenour ruled.

The ruling reduced potential damages against Munger and CSI for violating the labor contractors act from approximately $1.5 million to $250,000. The suit also seeks separate damages for alleged poor working conditions.

The question has significance beyond this case, as agriculture consolidates crews and companies move workers between their farms in different states, Columbia Legal Services attorney Joe Morrison said Tuesday.

"We think it's a big issue now and that it's going to be a bigger issue in the future," he said.

Efforts to reach an attorney for CSI were unsuccessful.

In court filings, CSI argues that it processes visa applications and doesn't do traditional farm labor contractor activities, such as recruiting and transporting workers. The workers supplied to Munger and Sarbanand were either picked by the farms or applied online, according to court records.

CSI also points out that it checked with the Washington Department of Labor and Industries and was told by an agricultural employment supervisor that it didn't need a license. That answer, according to a higher-placed L&I official, was wrong.

Coughenour has yet to rule on the motion.

In 2017, a farmworker was taken by ambulance from Sarbanand Farms. About 70 workers staged a one-day strike, complaining about working conditions and saying they were concerned about the farmworker.

The farm fired the workers. The farmworker later died in a Seattle hospital. L&I said the death was not work-related. The events provided the backdrop for the current federal lawsuit.

Recommended for you