Ninth Circuit Hands Farmworker Union a Win in Private Property Rights Spat

(Jackie Johnston / The Associated Press)

(CN) – In a split decision, a Ninth Circuit panel sided with agricultural labor unions Wednesday in a case that pitted private property rights against workers’ rights.

A majority of the three-judge panel affirmed a lower court dismissal of a case where commercial agriculture growers claimed a California law that allowed farmworker labor unions to access their property for organizational purposes amounted to an illegal taking. 

“We hold that the access regulation as applied to the growers does not amount to a per se physical taking of their property in violation of the Fifth Amendment,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Paez on behalf of the majority.

U.S. Circuit Judge Edward Leavy dissented, saying there is no U.S. Supreme Court precedent that allows for labor organizers to access private property for substantial periods of time.

Paez was joined by Circuit Judge William Fletcher, both of whom were appointed by Bill Clinton. Ronald Reagan appointed Leavy.

The case was initially filed and argued throughout the process by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian public interest law firm with an emphasis on private property rights. Attorney Wen Fa said the farmers will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Ninth Circuit’s panel decision isn’t what we hoped for, but we’re committed to vindicating our clients’ constitutional rights,” Fa said in an email. “The case raises important issues that affects the property rights of all Americans. Our clients are committed to using their property to produce crops for Americans in California and elsewhere; they should be able to do so without facing disruptive protests. We intend to continue the fight for our clients’ constitutional rights.”

In 2016, Cedar Point Nursery challenged a labor law allowing labor union workers to access farms for up to an hour for organizational purposes and which had been on California’s books for approximately 40 years.

Cedar Point said union workers used the law as an improper justification for a farmworker protest held at its strawberry growing operation near the California-Oregon border.

A co-plaintiff in the case, Fowler Packing – a citrus and table grape shipping operation based in Fresno, California – also said labor unions inappropriately accessed its property using the law as justification.

Attorneys for the Agricultural Labor Relations Board said the law is fundamentally equipped to handle such purported infractions, pointing to stipulations that require union organizers to access property only before or after work hours and in a non-disruptive manner. Should growers have a problem with abuse or misuse of the law, there is already an avenue for recourse, including complaints to the labor board.

The board also argued the growers were attempting to stretch the legal concept of private taking in order to rid themselves of a law they didn’t like – a position the majority of the panel ultimately took up.

“The growers base their Fifth Amendment argument entirely on the theory that the access regulation constitutes a permanent physical invasion of their property and therefore is a per se taking,” Paez wrote.

In 2016, Cedar Point Nursery challenged a labor law allowing labor union workers to access farms for up to an hour for organizational purposes and which had been on California’s books for approximately 40 years.

Cedar Point said union workers used the law as an improper justification for a farmworker protest held at its strawberry growing operation near the California-Oregon border.

A co-plaintiff in the case, Fowler Packing – a citrus and table grape shipping operation based in Fresno, California – also said labor unions inappropriately accessed its property using the law as justification.

Attorneys for the Agricultural Labor Relations Board said the law is fundamentally equipped to handle such purported infractions, pointing to stipulations that require union organizers to access property only before or after work hours and in a non-disruptive manner. Should growers have a problem with abuse or misuse of the law, there is already an avenue for recourse, including complaints to the labor board.

The board also argued the growers were attempting to stretch the legal concept of private taking in order to rid themselves of a law they didn’t like – a position the majority of the panel ultimately took up.

“The growers base their Fifth Amendment argument entirely on the theory that the access regulation constitutes a permanent physical invasion of their property and therefore is a per se taking,” Paez wrote.

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