United States farm laborers brought claims against a farmer and his agricultural business for breach of contract, civil conspiracy, and violations of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (AWPA). The defendant entered into an agreement with an agricultural labor contractor to hire seasonal workers on his behalf under the H-2A work-visa program. Because many domestic workers expressed interest in the job, the contractor was obligated to prioritize them in the hiring process under the H-2A program requirements. The contractor hired the plaintiffs at the rate specified in the work contract submitted during the H-2A application process. This rate was higher than both the state and federal minimum wage. The defendant then fulfilled his seasonal labor needs through a different contractor paying minimum wage to the laborers and did not provide any work to the plaintiffs.
The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the agricultural business on all claims finding that the defendant did not have control over the contractor and was therefore not liable for the actions of an independent contractor. The Tenth Circuit reasoned that because this was a contract claim rather than a tort claim, control was not the crucial element, but whether an agency relationship existed between the defendant and the contractor. Because there was a genuine issue of material fact whether contractor had actual or apparent authority to enter into contracts with the plaintiffs on the defendants behalf, the court reversed the grant of summary judgment.
The AWPA prohibits an agricultural employer from violating the terms of the working arrangement with a migrant agricultural worker. The plaintiffs claimed the defendant violated this regulation as both an agricultural employer and joint employer with the contractor when he failed to provide the plaintiffs with work as specified in the work contract. The defendant agreed he was an agricultural employer, but argued he did not enter into a contract with the plaintiffs or jointly employ them with the contractor. The court found that the defendant was not a joint employer with the contractor because he did not actually employ the plaintiffs at any time. However, the court found that whether an agency relationship existed with contractor was the “threshold issue” in determining if the agricultural business could be accountable. Therefore, the court reversed the grant of summary judgment on the breach of contract and AWPA claims. The court affirmed the grant of summary judgment on the conspiracy claim because there was no evidence of an agreement between the defendant and the contractor.
Alfaro-Huitron v. Cervantes Agribusiness, 2020 WL 7295709 (10th Cir. 2020).