Federal Judge Delivers Stinging Rebuke to USDOL in hot goods cases
Judge Coffin cites duress, vacates consent judgments against blueberry farmers
U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin issued a ruling Jan. 15 vacating the U.S. Dept. of Labor consent agreements imposed on two Oregon blueberry farms in summer of 2012. Judge Coffin ruled USDOL used illegal duress in coercing the farms to sign the agreements. Under Oregon law, agreements reached when one party is under duress are not valid. In 2012, USDOL had used its so-called hot goods powers to tell customers of these farms to not accept shipment of fresh blueberries, one of Oregon’s most delicate and perishable farm products. Only by signing away their right to appeal “whether future finding of fact or law” later exonerated them, would DOL tell customers it was ok to receive blueberry shipments from the farms. USDOL also required the two farms to immediately pay over $200,000 in alleged back wages and penalties without giving any evidence that such wages were owed nor penalties warranted. USDOL’s visits to the farms were not complaint-driven and neither farm had ever been cited for federal or state wage violations. Quotations and the complete ruling from Judge Coffin are attached.
“This ruling is a historic win for due process protections,” said Oregon Farm Bureau (OFB) Executive Vice President Dave Dillon. “In 17 years with the state’s largest agricultural organization and over six years in a U.S. senate office I’ve never seen such reckless disregard for due process than what USDOL has shown in these cases. Judge Coffin’s ruling sends a clear signal that the enormous power of federal government agencies must be applied in ways that respect citizens’ right to review and appeal.” OFB took the lead in helping correct USDOL’s misuse of hot goods powers in these cases, working with Rep. Kurt Schrader on federal legislation, sponsoring state legislation which passed the Oregon Senate, and in identifying the legal strategy the farms used to win this case. Rep. Schrader also filed a friend of the court brief in support of the farmers in this case. Rep. Greg Walden spoke on the floor of the U.S House of representativ4es twice decrying DOL’s actions. “From day one OFB focused on two goals: Help these farms correct the wrong that was done to them and ensure that no farm family ever has to endure this kind of careless and overzealous disregard for civil liberties again. Today we’ve taken a giant step toward both goals, but we’re not finished yet.” said Dillon.
OFB has sought public records from USDOL related to these cases and use of hot goods powers by USDOL across the country. After USDOL refused to release a single document in response to a ten-point public records request last February, OFB filed a federal lawsuit to compel their release under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Nearly a year after the initial request, USDOL has released five large binders of information, though some is heavily redacted. OFB is in negotiation with the Department of Justice attorneys to get the last of the requested documents and to challenge redactions which do not seem warranted. “We’re in the process of making sure USDOL has provided the documents it must provide under the law. Once we know we have them all, we’ll complete a thorough analysis,” said Dillon. “A cursory look through the material received to date tells me this story is far from over.”
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