350 F.3d 1163 (11th Cir. 2003), 03-10387, Morante-Navarro v. T&Y Pine Straw, Inc.

Docket Nº:03-10387
Citation:350 F.3d 1163
Party Name:Morante-Navarro v. T&Y Pine Straw, Inc.
Case Date:November 14, 2003
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
 
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Page 1163

350 F.3d 1163 (11th Cir. 2003)

Dagoberto MORANTE-NAVARRO, Andres Ascencio-Rodriguez, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

T&Y PINE STRAW, INC., Isaias Tamez, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 03-10387.

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

November 14, 2003

Page 1164

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 1165

Gregory S. Schell, Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, Lake Worth, FL, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

Before DUBINA, WILSON and KRAVITCH, Circuit Judges.

DUBINA, Circuit Judge:

Appellants, fourteen Mexican nationals ("Plaintiffs"), brought suit against T&Y Pine Straw, Inc. ("T&Y") and Isaias Tamez (collectively referred to as "Defendants"), alleging that Defendants violated the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Protection Act, codified at 29 U.S.C. §§ 1801-1872 (1988) ("AWPA"), and the Fair Labor Standards Act, codified at 29 U.S.C. §§ 201-219 (1988) ("FLSA"), by not paying proper hourly and overtime wages. The district court found that Plaintiffs were not engaged in "agricultural employment" within the meaning of the AWPA. For the reasons that follow, we reverse the district court's judgment and remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Facts

The facts are not in dispute. Tamez and his wife own T&Y, which is a Florida corporation in the business of the commercial sale of pine straw. T&Y leases privately-owned land for gathering pine straw and sells the baled pine straw to Southern Straw of Opelika, Alabama, based on a pre-agreed price per bale.

Pine straw is the fresh, undecomposed pine needles that have fallen from pine trees. It is produced commercially and collected for use as a mulch and groundcover. Although all pine forests or pine woodlands produce pine straw, the vast majority of pine straw gathered for commercial sale is collected from pine stands, or "plantations," grown for commercial timber.

In order to gather pine straw, workers must first clear the ground of underlying plants and debris, which often requires the mechanical mowing of ground vegetation by a "bush hog," and the manual clearing of loose branches and pine cones. After clearing the tract, workers rake the pine straw and deposit it into a bailing box, which compresses the pine straw into bales. Workers then load the pine straw onto trucks with a forklift. Individual pine straw workers can generally gather and bale between 100 and 200 bales of pine straw per day, covering about one-half acre of land.

In 2001, T&Y hired Plaintiffs, who are temporary foreign workers, through the H-2B visa program, 1 to rake, gather, bale, and load pine straw. T&Y set out in its temporary labor certification application to the United States Department of Labor ("DOL") that the prevailing wage its temporary foreign workers would receive was $6.65 per hour of work. Plaintiffs were told they would receive 70 cents per bale for each bale of pine straw. They worked between 10 and 11 hours per day. Accordingly, a worker who averaged gathering and baling 100 bales a day during a 10-hour day could expect to receive approximately $7.00 per hour. T&Y, however, reduced Plaintiffs' compensation by certain expenses so that Plaintiffs actually

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received, on average, less than $6.65 per hour. In addition, because of these expenses, several workers received no compensation for their final week of work. These deducted expenses included a $400 processing fee T&Y was required to pay to its agent for filing H-2B applications, $153 for visa-related expenses, and $197 for bus fare between Monterrey, Mexico, and the work site. 2

B. Procedural History

Plaintiffs filed their complaint for money damages, declaratory relief, and injunctive relief. After Defendants filed their answer and initial discovery was conducted, the district court entered a consent order approving an agreement between the parties settling and resolving most of Plaintiffs' claims. As a condition of the settlement agreement, however, the district court retained jurisdiction to resolve the remaining issue of whether the AWPA applies to Defendants' pine straw business.

Plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment in the district court arguing that (1) Plaintiffs' employment was of a seasonal or temporary nature, and (2) the raking, gathering, baling, and loading of pine straw is "agricultural employment" within the meaning of the AWPA. The district court granted in part and denied in part Plaintiffs' motion, finding that Plaintiffs were seasonal workers within the meaning of the AWPA, but that the work performed by Plaintiffs did not constitute agricultural employment under the AWPA.

Plaintiffs then perfected this appeal regarding the second issue. Defendants did not file a brief or participate in oral argument on appeal.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Whether Plaintiffs' raking, gathering, baling, and loading of pine straw for commercial sale is "agricultural employment" within the purview of the AWPA is an issue of first impression in this court. Because the issue exclusively concerns a question of law, the court reviews it de novo. Scala v. City of Winter Park, 116 F.3d 1396, 1397 n. 1, 1398 (11th Cir. 1997).

III. ANALYSIS

Whether the raking, gathering, baling, and loading of pine straw constitutes "agricultural employment" within the purview of the AWPA requires us to consider several aspects of statutory interpretation. We first look to the text of the statute, considering principles of statutory construction and seeking guidance from the DOL. We also consider the act's purpose as indicated in the legislative history. Lastly, we consider case law. See Caro-Galvan v. Curtis Richardson, Inc., 993 F.2d 1500, 1505 (11th Cir. 1993) (construing the AWPA). "Our ultimate goal is to give effect to congressional intent." See id. (citing United States v. Ron Pair Enters., Inc., 489 U.S. 235, 242, 109 S.Ct. 1026, 1031, 103 L.Ed.2d 290 (1989)). The "AWPA is a remedial statute and should be construed broadly to effect its humanitarian purpose." Id. (citing Bracamontes v. Weyerhaeuser Co., 840 F.2d 271, 276 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 854, 109 S.Ct. 141, 102 L.Ed.2d 113 (1988)). After considering these aspects of statutory interpretation, we conclude that Plaintiffs were engaged in "agricultural employment" within the meaning of the AWPA.

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A. Text of the AWPA

The AWPA defines "agricultural employment" as

employment in any service or activity included within the provisions of section 3(f) of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (29 U.S.C. 203(f)), or section 3121(g) of Title 26 [defining "agricultural labor" in the Internal Revenue Code] and the handling, planting, drying, packing, packaging, processing, freezing, or grading prior to delivery for storage of any agricultural or horticultural commodity in its unmanufactured state.

29 U.S.C. § 1802(3). Thus, the AWPA encompasses three possible definitions for agricultural employment: (1) employment within the provisions of section 3(f) of the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 203(f); (2) employment within the provisions of section 3121(g) of the Internal Revenue Code ("IRC"), 26 U.S.C. § 3121(g); and (3) "the handling, planting, drying, packing, packaging, processing, freezing, or grading prior to delivery for storage of any agricultural or horticultural commodity in its unmanufactured state." 29 U.S.C. § 1802(3).

In order to fall within the first two definitions of "agricultural employment," the work must be performed "on a farm." 29 U.S.C. § 203(f) (" 'Agriculture' includes farming in all its branches ... and any practices (including any forestry or lumbering operations) performed by a farmer or on a farm as an incident to or in conjunction with such farming operations...."); 26 U.S.C. § 3121(g) (" '[A]gricultural labor' includes all services performed ... on a farm, ... in connection with raising or harvesting any agricultural or horticultural commodity ...."); see also Bracamontes, 840 F.2d at 272-73. Plaintiffs concede that their pine straw work does not fall within the FLSA definition because their work is not performed on a traditional farm, e.g., on land dedicated to the raising of crops or livestock. See Bracamontes, 840 F.2d at 272-73 ("farm" has been interpreted to include only traditional farms). Plaintiffs argue, however, that they fall within the IRC definition because the IRC includes "plantations" in its definition of a farm. 26 U.S.C. § 3121(g). While Plaintiffs refer to the land upon which the pine straw is gathered as a "plantation," whether such an area is indeed a "plantation" within the meaning of the IRC is unclear from oral argument, the record, and the IRC. See, e.g., Kaolin Mushroom Farms, Inc. v. United States, No. 77-4379, 1979 WL 1476 (E.D.Pa. Sept.21, 1979) (unpublished opinion) (recognizing that the IRC presents a "somewhat uncertain statutory framework" containing circular definitions of both "farm" and "agricultural commodity"). We need not resolve this issue, however, because we conclude that Plaintiffs fall within the AWPA's third definition of "agricultural employment."

Under the third definition, "agricultural employment" is the "handling, planting, drying, packing, packaging, processing, freezing, or grading prior to delivery for storage of any agricultural or horticultural commodity in its unmanufactured state." 29 U.S.C. § 1802(3). Because Plaintiffs were clearly "handling" pine straw, the narrow issue in this case becomes whether pine straw is an "agricultural or horticultural commodity" within the purview of the AWPA.

The AWPA does not define "agricultural or horticultural commodity" or "agriculture." Because this case presents a close question and several interpretations are plausible, we carefully construe the statute, focusing first on the term "agriculture."

"A fundamental canon of statutory...

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