The 5th District Court of Appeal is sending a case back to Fresno County Superior Court over the issue of whether the public should be allowed to attend state-approved, closed-door meetings where employee contracts are being settled.
The three-justice panel ruled late Thursday that the lower court was in error when it decided it did not have jurisdiction in a case that puts into question the right of public access.
The issue stems from a 2013 request by farmworker Lupe Garcia to sit in on meetings between the United Farm Workers union and Fresno County-based Gerawan Farming Co. The two sides were meeting on an employee contract under the state’s mandatory mediation and conciliation process.
Overseen by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, the process is used when two sides can’t agree on a contract. The meetings are not open to the public.
According to court records, in the mandatory mediation process, after an initial 30-day period of voluntary mediation is exhausted, a decision-maker – the mediator – takes evidence and hears arguments from the parties on all disputed issues and then submits a report to the Board stating the mediator's findings on what he or she believes the terms of the collective bargaining agreement should be. When the report becomes the final order of the Board, it establishes the terms of an imposed agreement to which the parties are bound.
Garcia, a Gerawan employee, attempted to attend the hearing but was denied. The board later issued a broad policy saying the public did not have a right to attend the meetings.
Gerawan filed legal action in Superior Court, alleging that the ALRB was violating the right of public access, protected under the federal and state constitutions. The court disagreed with Gerawan. It also said it did not have the authority to rule on a case like this and left it up to the Court of Appeal or the state Supreme Court to review.
But the appellate justices, who heard Gerawan’s appeal on April 21, saw it differently.
“The trial court had jurisdiction to reach the constitutional issues raised in several causes of action. Accordingly, we will reverse and remand the case back to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” the justices wrote.
David Schwarz, Gerawan’s attorney, called the decision a victory for the workers, including Garcia.
“The court is finally allowing the workers a chance for a hearing,” Schwarz said. “And I am absolutely confident we will win.”
Paul Bauer, an attorney for Garcia, said he was thrilled at the decision.
“The board has continued to put up barriers at every stage of this proceeding to keep the farmworkers’ will suppressed and we look forward to having this important democratic issue decided,” Bauer said.
Dan Gerawan, a co-owner of Gerawan Farming, called on the ALRB to allow the public in on the process of mandatory mediation.
“The ALRB must protect workers first and foremost,” Gerawan said. “The secret hearing policy is obviously unconstitutional and the ALRB should stop wasting taxpayer dollars defending it.”
The ALRB said Tuesday that it was reviewing the ruling, but does not comment on pending litigation.
Several First Amendment advocates, including the California Newspapers Publishers Association, filed a friend of the court brief, supporting Gerawan’s and Garcia’s right of access.
Attorney and law professor Eugene Volokh said Tuesday that he is not sure if the groups will refile their briefs when the case goes back down to Superior Court, but it’s possible.