Sep 9, 2021
‘Paperwork mistake’ leads to New Jersey farm suing labor department

A new lawsuit launched by a fourth-generation family farm asks whether a single government agency can act as prosecutor, judge and jury when handing out potentially ruinous fines, a news release representing the farm indicated.

The news release said Sun Valley Orchards, a produce farm that grows fruits and vegetables in Swedesboro, New Jersey, is facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), “mostly for a paperwork mistake. Now, the Institute for Justice (IJ) will represent owners Joe and Russell Marino in a suit that challenges the system DOL crafted to enforce the rules it writes.”

“These penalties could destroy a fourth-generation family farm, and yet they’ve been imposed without the Marinos ever seeing a real federal judge,” said IJ Senior Attorney Rob Johnson in the news release. “The constitution guarantees an independent judiciary, and that means employers like the Marinos are entitled to a real trial in a real court before the government can destroy their business.”

According to the news release, in 2015, Sun Valley Orchards struggled to find the workers it would need to harvest the produce growing in its southern New Jersey fields. For the first time ever, the business operators decided to participate in the federal government program that would let them hire seasonal legal immigrants carrying H-2A visas. Because Joe and Russell knew that the program was complex, they hired a consultant to help them work through the paperwork.

“After a visit to the farm in 2015, an inspector told the Marinos there were no problems,” the news release stated. “However, just months later, DOL officials returned with a letter saying the farm was being assessed $550,000 in penalties. The majority of the amount was because their paperwork did not use the right language to describe the otherwise legal meal plan the farm offered workers. In fact, the farm continued to offer the same plan in later years without a DOL complaint. Other penalties related to a dispute over whether some workers had left on their own or been fired.

“It was a shock to be first told everything was fine and then months later handed a devastating fine,” said Joe Marino. “From the moment we were handed the letter stating the penalties, the process felt rigged against us. All we want is an opportunity for a fair hearing to take a hard look at the facts in our case and whether the punishment fits the offense. It’s what every American should get when their livelihood is on the line.”

For almost five years, the Marinos fought the fines within DOL’s administrative law system.

“To police the H-2A visa program, DOL created the rules and the penalties for violation,” the news release stated. “The agency employs the investigators, the administrative law judges that hear cases, and the board that considers appeals. It is a system built without clear legislative direction and that is not overseen by a neutral member of the judiciary. The Marinos’ suit is aimed not only at stopping their fines, but also creating a fairer system overseen by federal courts, not bureaucrats.

“The lawsuit also asks courts to consider whether six-figure fines for a paperwork mistake violate the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause. While the Supreme Court (in a case litigated by IJ) recently ruled that the excessive fines clause applies to all levels of government in the U.S., there is not a clear legal standard about when a fine becomes excessive. IJ is currently representing clients fighting fines over tall grassparking in their own driveway and an unpermitted pigeon coop.”

“Hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for a first-time paperwork violation is totally out of proportion,” said IJ Attorney Renée Flaherty. “Fortunately, the constitution guarantees that a punishment must fit the offense.”

An administrative law judge with the United States Department of Labor ruled Swedesboro-based Sun Valley Orchards, LLC violated the H-2A provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act, ruling the farm must pay $344,945 in back wages to 147 farmworkers, 96 of which were temporary foreign workers on H-2A visas. The judge also ordered the farm to pay $211,800 in civil money penalties.

An investigation conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division Southern New Jersey District Office found the farm had failed to provide workers with sanitary housing, transported workers from their housing to the fields each day using unlicensed drivers and unsafe vehicles.

The farm was also found to have denied workers access to the company’s kitchen to cook their own food and charged workers for meals and drinks at a profit, an action the Department of Labor said was an illegal deduction from workers’ wages.

The other infraction uncovered included the farm firing 20 workers without cause during the growing season. The federal agency stated the farm tried to force the workers to waive their right to employment for the time commitment required by the H-2A regulations by directing them to sign false statements.

The NJ.Com story also reported:

The Immigration and Nationality Act allows nonimmigrant workers into the country legally through visas to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature. The employees are classified as H-2A workers.

“Sun Valley Orchards failed to honor its legal obligations and took advantage of these employees,” WHD Director Charlene Rachor said in a statement. “The Wage and Hour Division offers employers a wide range of tools to help them understand their responsibilities, and provides direct support in person, by phone, and online for anyone that has specific questions about how to comply.”

The Department of Labor said as an H-2A employer, Sun Valley Orchards had to provide free housing to H-2A workers and to workers with corresponding employment who are not able to return to their residence within the same day. The farm was also required to either provide each H-2A employee three meals a day at no more than a department-specified cost or to furnish free and convenient cooking and kitchen facilities where workers can prepare their own meals. Also, the housing had to meet all applicable safety standards.

To view the entire story, visit here.

Joe Marino of Sun Valley Orchards. Photo: Sun Valley Orchards

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