FRESNO, Calif. (CN) — Farmworkers seeking to attend closed-door employment-contract proceedings held by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board can advance a lawsuit, a California appeals court ruled.
A three-judge panel of the Fifth District Court of Appeal found Monday that a state law limiting judicial review of ALRB rulings to the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court is unconstitutional.
The issue stems from one of many lawsuits between Fresno-based Gerawan Farming and the United Farm Workers Union. The union sought a collective bargaining agreement covering thousands of fruit pickers, while many workers were campaigning to reject the union.
Under California’s mandatory mediation and conciliation process, the two sides attended a meeting overseen by the labor board in 2013 to try to agree on an employee contract.
Gerawan employee Lupe Garcia asked to silently observe the on-the-record meetings, but the board denied his request. The ALRB later issued a policy stating that the public does not have a right to attend the meetings.
Garcia sued the board in Fresno County Court, claiming it violated the right of public access by refusing to let him sit in on proceedings that concerned the terms of a contract to be imposed on him and all other Gerawan farm employees.
Superior Court Judge Mark Snauffer ruled that his court did not have authority to hear the case because a 2002 mandatory mediation and conciliation state law limited judicial review of the board’s rulings in such cases to the higher state courts.
The Fifth District Court of Appeal panel ruled Monday that the limits set by the mediation law are unconstitutional.
The law’s “absolute preclusion of superior court jurisdiction, even in exceptional circumstances where (as with Garcia) the sole statutory mechanism for judicial review was unavailable and constitutional rights were assertedly at stake, impermissibly divested the superior court of its original jurisdiction without an adequate constitutional foundation for doing so,” Judge Stephen Kane wrote for the unanimous panel.
Although Garcia asked the appellate court to rule on the broader public-access issue directly, the panel remanded to the trial court to hear that argument.
The labor board should be the given “the opportunity to assert procedural and other defenses that, if successful, may defeat the causes of action without the necessity of reaching the constitutional issues,” Kane wrote.
Assuming that the trial court does address the merits of Garcia’s constitutional questions, it will need a more fully developed record, the panel said.
“We say that because, in addressing whether a First Amendment right of public access applies to a particular proceeding, courts are to consider two factors: (1) the historic tradition of public access or openness with respect to the type of proceedings at issue and (2) the utility or positive role of public access to the functioning of the particular process in question,” Kane wrote.
These factors will have to be carefully evaluated to determine whether an access right exists with respect to the on-the-record phase of the mandatory mediation and conciliation process, he said.
Gerawan co-owner Dan Gerawan said in a statement: “While we are happy to return to the Superior Court and win again there, we wonder why the ALRB persists in its blatantly unconstitutional policy of barring workers from proceedings where their working conditions and wages are being addressed.
“We call on the ALRB to rethink its position and agree to open proceeding even if the UFW wants them closed,” Gerawan said. “The ALRB must protect workers first and foremost. The secret hearing policy is obviously unconstitutional and the ALRB should stop wasting taxpayer dollars defending it.”
The ALRB does not comment on pending litigation.
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