Agriculture

Two Fresno farming companies get another shot at gaining protections from penalties

Left to right, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, congressman Jim Costa and grower/packer Dennis Parnagian watch Lucia Garcia sort nectarines at Fowler Packing in this 2009 photo. Fowler Packing is one of two Fresno-area companies appealing provisions of a law the firms say unfairly target them.
Left to right, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, congressman Jim Costa and grower/packer Dennis Parnagian watch Lucia Garcia sort nectarines at Fowler Packing in this 2009 photo. Fowler Packing is one of two Fresno-area companies appealing provisions of a law the firms say unfairly target them. Fresno Bee file

A federal appeals court is sending a case involving Gerawan Farming and Fowler Packing back to a lower court, saying the two Fresno County companies may have been wrongly excluded from a state statute giving employers protection from lawsuits and penalties when settling claims for back wages.

The farming giants have been engaged in a legal battle with the state over a new law that was intended to take care of about $200 million in unpaid wages for thousands of workers, including farm laborers.

The law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, gave employers of low-wage workers amnesty against lawsuits and penalties in exchange for taking care of millions of dollars in unpaid wages. Most of the unpaid wages stemmed from rest periods and other hours worked, but not compensated.

Gerawan and Fowler Packing, both major national suppliers of fresh fruit, filed a lawsuit in federal court in January alleging they were intentionally and arbitrarily cut out of the legislation known as Assembly Bill 1513. They also say they were carved out of the bill so it could gain support from the United Farm Workers union.

The union and Gerawan Farming have been battling for several years over worker representation and charges of unfair labor practices. The union’s attorney, Mario Martinez, could not be reached for comment.

In their legal complaint, the companies argued that the Legislature violated their equal protection rights by unfairly targeting them and by creating a law that essentially singled them out as “bad actors.”

The federal district court dismissed those claims, triggering the appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The decision, issued Dec. 9, was a victory for the growers, but on only one of the claims.

The judges reversed the lower court on the issue of equal protection, sending the case back for further review.

David Schwarz, an attorney representing Gerawan and Fowler Packing, declined to comment on the decision, saying he was waiting to see the judges’ written opinion.

Once the opinion is filed, both sides have the option for a rehearing. If there are no requests, the case will be sent back to federal district court in Fresno for a hearing.

Agriculture groups have been monitoring the case closely. Western Growers, an advocacy group representing growers in California and Arizona, took a neutral position during the debate over AB 1513, but officials were optimistic about the court’s recent ruling.

“There is no downside to this,” said Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel of Western Growers. “If Gerawan and Fowler Packing are able to take advantage of the safe-harbor provisions of the new law, then farmworkers will be receiving checks.”

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob

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