Strawberry Farm Under Fire for Worker-Recruitment Fees

Not far from its fields in Plant City, Florida, the family-owned Fancy Farms runs this strawberry stand in Lakeland. (Image via Facebook)

MIAMI (CN) — Fending off labor claims from 54 migrant workers, a lawyer for a Florida strawberry farm told 11th Circuit that the company is not liable for the illegal fees its pickers paid a recruiter.

The hearing this morning before a three-judge panel stems from a lawsuit filed in 2015 by Selso Ulloa and other Hondurans who earned about $10 an hour picking strawberries for Fancy Farms in Hillsborough County.

Though the U.S. Department of Labor specifically bars employers like Fancy Farms from collecting recruitment fees from workers it brings over on H-2A visas, Fancy Farms contracted its recruitment work out to a company called All Nation Staffing in 2013.

Ulloa and his fellow Fancy Farm pickers say Nestor Millina and Patrick Burns, the principals of All Nation Staffing, charged them each at least $3,500 as a condition of hire, and they only were able to make such payments after taking out high-interest loans.

Prompting Ulloa’s appeal, U.S. District Judge Susan Bucklew dismissed the case last year against Fancy Farms, finding that the workers failed to show proximate cause.

Urging the 11th Circuit to affirm this morning, at a special hearing of the federal appeals court in Miami, Allen Norton & Blue attorney David Stefany said Fancy Farms had no reason to expect Molina would charge illegal fees. 

“My client messed up by not putting it in its agreement, and then signing All Nations Staffing’s agreement,” Stefany said of Fancy Farms.

Though the hearing ended today without a decision, U.S. Circuit Judge Joel Dubina appeared critical of the employer’s conduct.

“There is a federal regulation that asks Fancy Farms to not charge fees, and that was not done,” Dubina said.

“They didn’t comply with the regulation,” he added. 

U.S. Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus meanwhile called out the vague language in the farm’s contract with All Nation Staffing.

“Complying with the law is an abstract term,” Marcus said. “Got to tell a contractor that you can’t do things in the contract itself.”

Kasowitz Benson Torres attorney Jennifer Recine made the case for a reversal. She said Molina held himself as a representative of Fancy Farms, and that both Burns and Molina were aware of the recruitment and hiring fees being charged to the immigrant workers. 

“They never certified to the government that fees were not charged,” Recine said.

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