Labor Department Moves to Dismiss H2-A Fees Case

The U.S. Department of Labor on Wednesday filed a memorandum in support of its motion to dismiss a case that alleges it illegally fined New Jersey farm Sun Valley Orchards LLC half a million dollars for H-2A visa program violations. In addition, it also filed a motion in opposition to the plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment and a cross-motion for summary judgment. 

The complaint, originally filed in September 2021, objects to the findings of a 2015 investigation by the administrator of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division that Sun Valley owes $369,703.22 in back wages to H-2A visa workers and $212,250 in penalties for misrepresentations of working conditions. 

“Conditions at Sun Valley were deplorable. The workers harvested vegetables twelve hours each day with only a single, one-hour break….Worse yet, potable drinking water and clean bathrooms were not regularly available to workers in the fields…Sun Valley also transported the workers in school buses—with worn, unsafe tires—that were driven by workers without drivers licenses,” the defendant stated in Wednesday’s filing. “Conditions were not much better in the workers’ housing. The facilities had dirty bathrooms with two broken sinks and no hot water. The windows and doors had no screens, and ‘garbage cans lacked lids, which attracted flies and other pests.’”  

In addition, while Sun Valley job orders for H-2A visa workers submitted to the Department of Labor claimed workers would have access to free cooking and kitchen facilities, they in fact did not, and were instead charged $75 to $80 a week for meals. The supervisor also sold beer to workers, even though he did not have a license to sell alcohol, the defendant claims. Nineteen workers were also fired after raising concerns over working conditions to management.

Under the H-2A program, qualifying employers may hire foreign workers to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature. Employers seeking H-2A visa workers must provide both workers and the Department of Labor with a job order, which accurately lists job qualifications and requirements, minimum benefits, wages, and working conditions. Employers who are found to be in violation of H-2A visa program requirements may request a review by an administrative law judge. Parties may then appeal the ALJ’s decision to the Labor Department’s Administrative Review Board. Sun Valley filed suit against the Department of Labor after both the appointed ALJ and the Administrative Review Board upheld the alleged violations.

In its motion for partial summary judgment, Sun Valley claims the power appointed to the ALJ who reviewed its case violates the Appointments Clause of Article II of the Constitution and Article III of the Constitution. It also claims it is authorized to a trial de novo and that the backpay and penalty fines are arbitrary and capricious. The defendant denies all claims.

“From start to finish, Plaintiff’s claims are meritless,” the Department of Labor stated in court documents. “Sun Valley voluntarily chose to participate in the H-2A program and it cannot now escape liability for its H-2A violations with belated and baseless constitutional and APA challenges. The Court should dismiss all these claims or summary judgment should be granted for Defendants.”

The defendant is represented by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The plaintiff is represented by Winegar, Wilhelm, Glynn & Roemersma PC and the Institute for Justice.