Ramos-Barrientos v. Bland

Decision Date27 October 2011
Docket NumberNo. 10–13412.,10–13412.
Citation661 F.3d 587,23 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. C 518,18 Wage & Hour Cas.2d (BNA) 385,161 Lab.Cas. P 35959
PartiesNicolas RAMOS–BARRIENTOS, on behalf of themselves and all other similarly situated persons, Anselmo Hernandez–Martinez, on behalf of themselves and all other similarly situated persons, Jorge Hernandez–Antonio, on behalf of themselves and all other similarly situated persons, Gregorio Ponce–Hernandez, on behalf of themselves and all other similarly situated persons, Catalino Hernandez–Rubio, on behalf of themselves and all other similarly situated persons, Plaintiffs–Appellants,Omar Sanchez–Covarrubias, Elias Lopez–Hernandez, Amancio Perez–Angeles, Amancio Perez–Martinez, Jose C. Najera–Quiroz, Esteban Hernandez–Martinez, Jose Pardo–Najera, Interested Parties–Appellants, v. Delbert C. BLAND, Bland Farms, LLC, Manpower of the Americas, Consular Services International, Michael Bryan Bell, Defendants–Appellees,Bland Farms I, LLC, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

James M. Knoepp, Southern Poverty Law Ctr., George Brian Spears, G. Brian Spears, PC, Atlanta, GA, Gregory S. Schell, Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, Lake Worth, FL, Robert J. Willis, Law Office of Robert J. Willis, Raleigh, NC, for Appellants.

William E. Dillard, III, J. Curt Thomas, Brennan & Wasden, LLP, Savannah, GA, Ann Margaret Pointer, John E. Thompson, Fisher & Phillips, LLP, Atlanta, GA, for Appellees.

Paul L. Frieden, Diane A. Heim, U.S. Dept. of Labor, Office of Sol., Washington, DC, for Amicus Curiae, U.S. Dept. of Labor.Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia.Before EDMONDSON and PRYOR, Circuit Judges, and BOWDRE,* District Judge.

PRYOR, Circuit Judge:

The main issue is this appeal is whether an employer that hires migrant farm workers through the H–2A visa program is entitled to wage credits under the Fair Labor Standards Act, see 29 U.S.C. § 203(m), for housing and meals that federal law required the employer to provide the workers. Migrant farm workers who worked for Bland Farms, LLC, appeal a summary judgment in favor of Bland and against their complaint that Bland violated the Act. The workers allege that Bland paid them below the minimum wage in violation of the Act, id. § 206, when it failed to reimburse them for fees and travel costs they incurred during their travel from Mexico to Bland's farms in Georgia. The district court held that Bland was entitled to wage credits, id. § 203(m), for the cost of housing and meals that Bland provided the workers and that those credits offset any amounts owed the workers for expenses they incurred during their travel. The Secretary of Labor, as amicus curiae, argues that Bland is not entitled to wage credits for the provision of free housing for the workers, which is required by federal law, 20 C.F.R. § 655.122(d)(1), because this cost primarily benefits the employer. See 29 C.F.R. § 531.3(d)(1). We defer to the Secretary's interpretation, Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452, 117 S.Ct. 905, 137 L.Ed.2d 79 (1997), that Bland cannot credit the cost of housing in the wages paid to the workers and we agree with Bland that it is entitled to wage credits for the cost of meals for the workers. We also conclude that Bland is not liable under principles of agency law for the fees that third parties charged the workers related to their efforts to obtain employment with Bland. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand.

I. BACKGROUND

Bland Farms, LLC, formerly a sole proprietorship owned by Delbert C. Bland, grows Vidalia onions, the famous and delicious variety of sweet onion grown exclusively in southeastern Georgia, see 7 C.F.R. § 955.4. For years, Bland has hired hundreds of migrant farm workers from Mexico through the H–2A visa program to work at its farms near Glennville, Georgia, during the fall planting and spring harvesting seasons. Bland and other employers that participate in the H–2A program hire workers in foreign countries and must comply with federal regulations that govern both labor and immigration policy. In the summer of 2001, representatives of Bland began discussions with International Labor Management Corporation about the possible delegation to International Labor of some of these administrative responsibilities.

On August 3, 2001, Lee Wicker, a representative of International Labor who falsely presented himself as the vice president of the company, traveled to Georgia to meet with Clarke Yearous, the chief operations officer for Bland; Sloan Lott, the operations manager for Bland; and two other individuals who also worked for Bland. Wicker explained at the meeting that International Labor could handle all of the government paperwork and filings pertaining to the H–2A program. International Labor also “had people in place in Mexico,” who could assist the migrant farm workers with “issues [they] had at the consulate in Mexico.” Wicker assured Bland's representatives that Bland could hire the same workers that it had employed in past growing seasons.

Yearous and Lott disagree with Wicker about a key detail of the meeting: whether the workers would be charged any undisclosed fees. Yearous testified that he “asked Lee Wicker, specifically, several times if there would be any ‘under-the- table’ charges to the workers[,] and every time [Wicker] assured [Yearous] there would be no extra charge.” Yearous also testified that Wicker assured him that “there would be no hidden fees that Bland Farms would have to pick up and there would be no unethical or unforseen charges to [Bland's] workers.” Lott had a similar recollection, as he testified that “Yearous asked Mr. Wicker numerous times[ ] during that meeting whether there would be any charges to the workers for services provided to Bland Farms[,] and Mr. Wicker told Mr. Yearous there would be no charges to the workers.” But Wicker testified that he had no recollection of any discussion during any of the negotiations that occurred in 2001 of “any additional fees that Bland would have to pay over and above the[ ] flat fees” to International Labor. He disagreed with the contentions of Lott and Yearous that he had “promised no fees would be charged [to the] workers” and further testified that he “was never in a position to promise clients that there would be no such fee.” Wicker could not make such a promise because the “people in place in Mexico” who Wicker referenced at the meeting did not work for International Labor. They instead worked for affiliates of International Labor—initially Manpower of the Americas and later Consular Services International. Wicker testified that he explained to Bland in 2001 that Manpower, not International Labor, would provide assistance to the workers in Mexico, and that he ordinarily explained to potential clients that Manpower and Consular Services charged fees to the workers. Wicker never testified that he told representatives of Bland about these fees.

Later communications clarified the services that International Labor would perform for Bland, but did not address whether anyone would charge the workers any fees. In a letter dated August 23, 2001, Wicker gave Bland “several options to consider.” For $10,000 per year, International Labor would provide “consulting as well as administrative services” in a package that “would include all aspects of crafting/modifying [Bland's] work agreements, all interaction with the various branches of government including the visa application process with INS,” and payment of “all fees associated with the application process on behalf of Bland Farms.” The letter reassured Bland that it could “get [its] former H–2A workers (preferred workers) back without any problem.” The letter also explained that “Manpower of the Americas ... would handle all the necessary recruitment services and provide timely replacement workers.” The letter did not discuss any other responsibilities that Manpower might handle.

Further negotiations proved successful, and Bland entered an agency and indemnity agreement with International Labor for the 2002 harvesting and planting seasons. Bland entered similar agreements with International Labor each year from 2003 through 2007. The agreements provided that International Labor would “prepare and process forms and documents” required for participation in the H–2A program, maintain all necessary contacts with state and federal agencies on behalf of Bland, and “undertake the administrative tasks of the domestic recruitment requirements” imposed by federal regulations.

The agreements that Bland signed borrowed most of their language from the standard agreement that International Labor entered with clients, with one key exception: the agreements did not address the recruitment of workers from Mexico. The standard agreement provided that International Labor would “undertake recruitment ... for the purpose of recruiting the number of supplementary farm laborers from domestic sources and/or temporary agricultural employees from the Republic of Mexico under the H–2A program.” The standard agreement also provided that International Labor would “prepare and process forms and documents” required “to obtain U.S. workers and/or H–2A workers from the Republic of Mexico.” But the agreements that Bland signed did not mention the recruitment of workers from Mexico and related administrative responsibilities. Bland instead recruited most of its workers on its own. Bland explained that its recruiters would “travel to Mexico and attempt to locate people who [were] interested in coming to work for [it].” Bland concedes that it hired International Labor to recruit workers [i]n rare cases,” but none of the workers contend that International Labor or one of its affiliates in Mexico recruited them to work for Bland. International Labor also charged Bland $7,500 each year for its services, not its standard rate of $10,000.

Bland had to obtain certification from...

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