Florida Citrus Grower Fights to Duck Wage Liability at 11th Circuit

ATLANTA (CN) – Trying to shield a Florida citrus grower from workers who were denied a fair wage, attorneys for the grove operator insisted Tuesday at the 11th Circuit that the hiring crew bears full responsibility.

Consolidated Citrus LP brought its appeal after a federal judge in Fort Myers ordered it to pay $195,000 to several dozen Mexican migrants who handpicked fruit at its groves scattered around the state between 2007 and 2009.

Arguing on Tuesday before a three-judge panel in Atlanta, Consolidated Citrus attorney Merritt McAlister denied that his client should should not be considered a joint employer, or owe money to the workers, given that the task of hiring was outsourced to Ruiz Harvesting.

“It’s undisputed that Ruiz Harvesting had the exclusive right to control its workers,” said McAlister, of the firm King and Spalding in Atlanta. “The property is 8,000 acres. Ruiz was one of several companies hiring crews. My client checked in on Ruiz’s crews maybe 10 or 15 minutes per day. They had very little to no supervisory relationship with the workers themselves.”

Though McAlister denied that the facts support control at the level of the common-law test, attorney David Lopez, who represents the workers, argued otherwise.

“This is an excellent blueprint to use for applying common law,” said Lopez, a partner at Outten and Golden in Washington, D.C.’s.

Lopez continued that “Consolidated Citrus unilaterally has the right to stop the workers for any reason.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Robin Rosenbaum questioned meanwhile what the power to stop work actually shows. “But couldn’t they stop work for lightning in the area,” Rosenbaum asked. “Sometimes it’s to protect the workers.”

“Yes,” Lopez said, “But it shows control.

“Consolidated Citrus basically says we’re going to have control but take a modest depth of control with regards to wage,” he continued. “It’s hard to look through this record and not see supervisory control.”

The workers brought their suit as a class action in 2010 to recover minimum wages due under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

“The grower is in a position … to be able to safeguard against labor violations,” Lopez added. There are very simple steps the grower could have taken.”

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