Reyes-Trujillo v. Four Star Greenhouse, Inc.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Michigan)
Citation513 F.Supp.3d 761
Docket NumberCase No. 20-11692
Parties Eduardo REYES-TRUJILLO, Gerardo Santiago-Hernandez, Miguel Angel Martinez-Barragan, Santos Bruno-Cruz, Pablo Mateo-Velazquez, and Andres Ponciano-Serna, Plaintiffs, v. FOUR STAR GREENHOUSE, INC. and Thomas Smith, Defendants.
Decision Date12 January 2021

Benjamin Richard Botts, Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc., Julie Pittman, Baltimore, MD, Diana Marin, Anna Marie Hill, Ypsilanti, MI, Martha Olivia Villegas, Farmworker Legal Services, Kalamazoo, MI, for Plaintiffs.

Courtney L. Nichols, Plunkett Cooney, P.C., Kelly Shefferly, Patrick C. Lannen, Bloomfield Hills, MI, for Defendants.


JUDITH E. LEVY, United States District Judge

Plaintiffs in this case are migrant workers from Mexico who came to the United States in 2017 and 2018 on H-2A agricultural visas. Plaintiffs assert that Defendants Thomas Smith and Four Star Greenhouse, Inc. 1) did not compensate them for the work they completed; and 2) when they complained about the money owed, retaliated against them by having them jailed and then removed from the United States. Plaintiffs allege violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (AWPA), the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), and Michigan's Workforce Opportunity Wage Act (WOWA). They also assert claims for breach of contract and unjust enrichment under Michigan law.

For the reasons set forth below, Defendants’ motion is GRANTED with respect to the TVPRA and unjust enrichment claims and DENIED with respect to the FLSA, AWPA, and WOWA claims. Additionally, the Court ORDERS supplementary briefing on the question of whether the 2017 Four Star Job Order, or any other understanding between the parties, constituted an implied contract for purposes of Plaintiffs’ breach of contract claim.

I. Background
A. Defendants

Four Star is a domestic corporation with its principle place of business in Carleton, Michigan. (ECF No. 1, PageID.5, ¶ 22.) The company "sells young plants and finished crops throughout the United States to wholesale growers, retail growers, garden retailers and professional landscapers," employs over 100 workers annually, and has over $18 million in annual sales. (Id. at ¶¶ 23, 25.) Defendant Smith founded Four Star in 1982 and is "the owner, President, Treasurer, Resident Agent, and a Director of Four Star." (Id. at PageID.6, ¶¶ 29–30.)

B. DefendantsRecruiting Agent Vasquez Citrus & Hauling, Inc.

Defendants contracted with Vasquez Citrus & Hauling, Inc. (VCH), a farm labor contractor, to obtain noncitizen migrant workers on H-2A visas for its Michigan facilities.1 (See id . at PageID.1, ¶ 2; PageID.8, ¶ 50.) VCH's principle place of business is in Lake Placid, Florida, (id . at PageID.8, ¶ 50), and it is owned by Juan Vasquez, (see id . at PageID.9, ¶ 56). In March 2016, VCH was fined "nearly $22,000 by the U.S. Department of Transportation" for a fatal bus crash that killed six H-2A workers it was transporting back to Mexico from Michigan. (Id. at ¶ 53.) The company was also "disciplined and issued a civil monetary penalty by Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation" on August 31, 2017. (Id. at ¶ 54.) Subsequent to the events described in the Complaint,

the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division debarred VCH and its owner, Juan Vasquez, from the H-2A program for three years due to VCH's violations of the H-2A regulations in North Carolina, including failure to reimburse its H-2A workers for their inbound travel expenses and failure to provide adequate payroll or time records.

(Id. at ¶ 56.)

In 2017, Defendants selected VCH to serve as a labor contractor to recruit H-2A workers from Mexico to work at Four Star's Monroe County, Michigan facility. (Id. at PageID.1, ¶ 2; PageID.8, ¶ 50.) Smith signed the contract with VCH on behalf of Four Star. (Id. at PageID.6, ¶ 31.) Under the contract, VCH would "recruit and hire workers ... to work at Four Star's nursery and greenhouse operations in Michigan." (Id. at ¶ 32.) Four Star agreed to "pay VCH an hourly rate based on workers’ hours and based on the rate of pay provided to those workers." (Id. at ¶ 35.) Consistent with this agreement, "Four Star paid VCH based on a calculation of the number of hours worked by workers recruited by VCH, including Plaintiffs." (Id. at ¶ 36.)

On December 11, 2017, VCH received authorization from the U.S. Department of Labor to bring 145 workers to three addresses in Michigan—all of which correspond to Four Star worksites—under H-2A Job Order No. 8349344 (the "Four Star Job Order" or "Job Order").2 (Id. at PageID.10, ¶ 61.) The Job Order provided that "workers would work ‘in a commercial nursery,’ be paid $12.75 per hour, for an anticipated thirty-six (36) hours of work per week, [with an] anticipated period of employment of January 8, 2018 to July 30, 2018." (Id. at ¶ 62; see also ECF No. 37-1, PageID.409–413.)

C. The 2017 Plaintiffs

Plaintiffs Eduardo Reyes-Trujillo, Gerardo Santiago-Hernandez, Miguel Angel Martinez-Barragan, Santos Bruno-Cruz, and Pablo Mateo-Velazquez (collectively the "2017 Plaintiffs") allege that VCH brought them to the United States between May 2017 and September 2017 under H-2A visas.3 (See ECF No. 1, PageID.3–4, ¶¶ 9–10.) Prior to traveling to the United States, the 2017 Plaintiffs obtained valid H-2A visas under various VCH job orders and "assumed personal loans with high interest rates to pay out of pocket for travel to Monterrey[, Mexico to apply for their visas], for their H-2A visa fees, and for related subsistence costs." (Id. at PageID.10–11, ¶¶ 67–69.) Despite the requirements of the H-2A visa program, the 2017 Plaintiffs were not reimbursed for their visa or travel costs within their first week in this country, yet they began accruing interest on their loans. (See id. at PageID.12, ¶ 76.)

Once in the United States, "the 2017 Plaintiffs were repeatedly moved between different states or worksites outside the terms of their contracts, and had little to no notice from [VCH] regarding where they would be taken next or how long they would be required to work." (Id. at PageID.11, ¶ 72.) VCH also routinely failed to pay the 2017 Plaintiffs or paid them with checks that had insufficient funds and could not be cashed. (Id. at ¶ 73.) "Prior to being brought to Michigan to work for Defendants, the 2017 Plaintiffs had not been paid for weeks of work and [VCH] said they would only be paid if they worked in Michigan." (Id. at ¶ 75.) VCH further "threatened to blacklist the 2017 Plaintiffs from the H-2A program if they did not work in Michigan." (Id. at PageID.12, ¶ 77.)

Plaintiff Martinez-Barragan began working for Defendants in December 2017. (Id. at PageID.4, ¶ 15.) Reyes-Trujillo, Santiago-Hernandez, Bruno-Cruz, and Mateo-Velazquez began working for Defendants in January 2018. (Id. at ¶¶ 13, 14, 16, 17.) "By the time [VCH] brought the 2017 Plaintiffs to Four Star, ... [they] were so desperate for money for basic necessities, including food, with no means of returning home to Mexico, that they had little choice but to work at Four Star." (Id. at PageID.12, ¶ 79.) Despite reassurances from VCH that their H-2A visas would be renewed, "by the time the 2017 Plaintiffs arrived in Michigan to work at Four Star, their visas were expired." (Id. at ¶ 78; see also id . at PageID.15, ¶ 103.)

D. Plaintiff Ponciano-Serna

In February 2018, VCH brought Plaintiff Andres Ponciano-Serna and other H-2A workers directly from Mexico to Michigan to work for Defendants under the Four Star Job Order. (See id. at PageID.4, ¶¶ 11, 18; PageID.12, ¶ 80.) Like the 2017 Plaintiffs, he assumed personal loans with high interest rates in order to pay for his visa and travel costs. (Id. at PageID.11, ¶ 68; PageID.12, ¶ 81.) After Ponciano-Serna began working for Four Star, he was not reimbursed for his visa fee, travel costs, or subsistence expenses, "bringing his first week's wages below minimum wage."4 (Id. at PageID.14–15, ¶ 102.)

E. Plaintiffs’ Work at Four Star

"By February 2018, all six named Plaintiffs were working at Four Star's Michigan worksite and living in migrant housing units located at [the] Chestnut Hills Apartments, in Monroe, Michigan." (Id. at PageID.12, ¶ 82.) While working for Four Star, Plaintiffs "were instructed to follow Four Star's policies and procedures." (Id. at PageID.6, ¶ 34.) However, Plaintiffs were never given a copy of their contract or the written terms and conditions of their employment with Four Star. (Id. at PageID.13, ¶¶ 83–84.)

At Four Star's nursery, Plaintiffs’ duties "consisted primarily of choosing and transporting plants from the greenhouse to the shipping department, where they ticketed plants with shipping code labels and packed them for shipping around the country." (Id. at ¶ 88.) In the course of this work, they were also expected to build boxes, sweep the area, and trim plants. (Id. ) Plaintiffs were given "Four Star employee identification numbers" and were expected to track their time "through an electronic timekeeping system owned and operated by Four Star and developed by Defendant Smith." (Id. at PageID.14, ¶¶ 93–94; see also PageID.6–7, ¶¶ 37–38.) They also received "electronic key cards and the designated codes that corresponded to their different tasks" and were required "to scan their key cards each time they changed tasks." (Id. at PageID.14, ¶ 95.) Throughout, all of Plaintiffs’ work "was conducted at Four Star owned and operated facilities." (Id. at PageID.13, ¶ 86.)

During this time, "Defendants’ employees directly supervised every aspect of Plaintiffs’ work, including: training Plaintiffs on their job duties and requirements; assigning and supervising tasks throughout the day; each day, reviewing and correcting any errors throughout the day; and generally maintaining a constant...

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