SEATTLE (CN) – A class of farm workers who won an employment discrimination suit asked the 9th Circuit to move the decimal point on a $237,000 judgment so that workers can rake in more than $2 million in damages.
The original class action suit was filed after Global Horizons, a labor contractor, imported workers from Thailand to harvest fruit in two Yakima Valley orchards under the H-2A guest worker program, which allows employers to import foreign labor only if U.S. workers are not available.
A jury found that the Thai workers had displaced local farm workers, and, awarding the class representatives actual and general damages. The class members opted to seek damages under Washington’s Farm Labor Contractor Act in a bench trial, where U.S. District Judge Alan McDonald awarded them $237,000, rejecting claims that each member was entitled to $500 per violation, regardless of actual injury, exceeding $2 million.
Arguing on behalf of the farm workers before a three-judge appellate panel last week, attorney Lori Isley said McDonald misinterpreted the law. Although the Farm Labor Contractor Act says the court “may” award actual damages or statutory damages of $500 per violation, Isley said legislators intended for the damages to be mandatory.
At the appellate hearing in Seattle, Judge Richard Clifton was skeptical.
“When the thing starts with ‘may,’ the notion that you can extract from that a mandatory provision seems to me a hard sell,” he said.
Isley claimed that the Washington Legislature intended for the law to mirror an Oregon statute that includes fixed statutory damages “to protect exploited farm workers.”
“Even had the Legislature used ‘shall’ here, there may have been problems with the statutory constructions,” Isley said. “Which is why it’s so important for this court to also consider the legislative intent and the purpose of the statute. “
Green Acre Farms and Valley Fruit Orchards were represented by Brendan Monahan, who argued that the farm workers were unable to prove actual damages.
“Suddenly, when the plaintiffs had the burden to produce evidence of damages, it went away, and they stuck with this argument: ‘We’ll just take our $500 automatic penalty,'” Monahan said.
Isley claimed in her rebuttal that violations were “difficult to evaluate in monetary terms,” and she also said the two orchards should pay attorneys’ fees for the farm workers.