Almost a year after dismissing a federal lawsuit against two Lower Valley farmers accused of mistreating Thai farm workers, a federal judge this week called the claims “baseless” and awarded the growers compensation for their attorney’s fees.
U.S. District Judge Edward F. Shea recently ordered the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to pay “reasonable attorneys fees” to Green Acres and Valley Fruit farms stemming from the 2010 lawsuit that accused them of treating foreign guest workers from Thailand unfairly based on national origin.
Shea leveled harsh criticism at the federal agency, calling the legal claims “foundationless,” “baseless” and “frivolous” in his 32-page ruling.
“In summary, this is an exceptional case where the EEOC failed to conduct an adequate investigation to ensure that Title VII claims could reasonably be brought against the (farmers), pursued a frivolous theory of joint-employer liability, sought frivolous remedies and disregarded the need to have a factual basis to assert a plausible basis for relief under Title VII against the (farmers),” he wrote.
The growers have 30 days to submit a dollar amount to the judge, said Brendan Monahan, a Yakima attorney representing both growers.
“It’s fair to say it was a high six-figure fee and cost bill,” Monahan said of what the growers were facing in legal costs.
Monahan called the judgment a widely anticipated decision on one of the agency’s most high-profile lawsuits.
In May of last year, Shea ruled in favor of the two growers by dismissing the suit.
The case dates back to 2006, when Thai workers complained to the agency about the growers and Global Horizons, the now defunct Los Angeles-based labor contractor hired to recruit the workers in 2004 and 2005.
The agency asked for $30 million in damages from the growers in 2011 and filed the federal lawsuit the next year when the growers declined to pay, later bumping up the claims to a collective $67.5 million. The agency also issued news releases alleging human trafficking.
Monahan said he received calls from other attorneys and journalists from around the nation, giving his clients an unfair black eye.
Pete Verbrugge, president and co-owner of Valley Fruit, said last year he suspects he lost one domestic client due to the publicity. He was not available for comment Friday afternoon.
Attorneys for the agency were unavailable Friday afternoon, but last year they said they were considering an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco.
They still might, Monahan said, but must wait until this case is finished.
The agency’s case against Global Horizons is still pending, though Shea has filed a stipulated default judgment in the EEOC’s favor after the Los Angeles company missed a court deadline, Monahan said.
The lawsuit is not related to another federal case against Global Horizons and the two growers, in which a federal judge ruled they illegally displaced some 600 local workers with Thai guest workers.
The local workers won a $2 million judgment from the local growers in that case.