-- A federal appeals court awarded nearly $2 million on Wednesday to more than 600 Latino farm workers who accused a farm labor contractor and two Washington state growers of violating federal labor laws.
The Yakima Valley farm workers claimed that Valley Fruit Orchards and Green Acre Farms illegally and intentionally displaced them by hiring Los Angeles-based Global Horizons to bring in foreign workers in 2004.
U.S. District Judge Robert Whaley in Yakima awarded $237,000 in statutory damages to the workers in 2009, which was to be paid by Global Horizons.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision, ruling that the workers were entitled to damages of nearly $2 million and that Global Horizons and the growers were jointly liable.
"This is a huge victory for local farm workers in the Yakima Valley," Jose Perez, one of three representative plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, said in a statement issued by his lawyers. "We've waited a long time for this day and we're glad the court validated these important worker rights."
Perez worked for Global Horizons at Valley Fruit Orchards from February 2004 through August 2004. He and his crew claimed they were fired and replaced by temporary workers brought to the U.S. by Global Horizons.
Representatives for the two farms did not return telephone messages seeking comment Wednesday evening.
An attorney for Global Horizons, Michael Green, said he didn't really have a comment on the ruling but that his clients don't have any money right now anyway.
"My clients are now eating at fast-food restaurants and they aren't getting the large fries," he said.
Global Horizons brought about 175 temporary agricultural workers from Thailand to the Yakima Valley under the federal H-2A guest-worker program in 2004 and 2005. The program allows a labor contractor to bring in foreign workers if it can prove workers can't be found locally.
An estimated 600 workers claimed they were fired and displaced as a result, but company officials said the plaintiffs in the case either quit or were terminated for cause.
"This is a great day for farm workers everywhere and it places responsibility for the damages on the companies that brought Global Horizons, one of the worst labor contractors in history, to Washington state," attorney Lori Isley of Columbia Legal Services said.
Washington state revoked Global's operating license in January 2006, after repeatedly accusing the company of violating state wage and labor laws.
Global Horizons' president and other officials are the target of a criminal prosecution in Hawaii on accusations that they exploited Thai workers in what the FBI has called the country's largest human trafficking case.
However, the fate of that case became unclear earlier this month after U.S. prosecutors abruptly dropped similar accusations against a Hawaii farm in a related case.
A trial against Global Horizons CEO Mordechai Orian is set for February in Honolulu. He has denied the allegations.
In the Washington state case, the appeals court remanded to the lower court a decision on whether the growers or Global Horizons will pay the plaintiffs' attorneys fees, which had previously been estimated at about $1.8 million.
The appeals court also denied a third claim that the growers should be liable for punitive damages for race discrimination.
A jury had already awarded the farm workers more than $300,000 on a claim of race discrimination by Global Horizons. That verdict still stands, but the appeals court rejected the workers' claim that damages should be collected by the growers as well, saying the workers had earlier waived it, Isley said.