U.S. Dept. of Labor v. N.C. Growers Ass'n

Citation377 F.3d 345
Decision Date02 August 2004
Docket NumberNo. 03-2380.,03-2380.
PartiesUNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. NORTH CAROLINA GROWERS ASSOCIATION, INCORPORATED; Sexton Tree Farms and Sexton Associates; Highland Fraser Firs; New River Tree Company, as joint employers, Defendants-Appellants.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, Richard L. Voorhees, J.


ARGUED: William Randolph Loftis, Jr., Constangy, Brooks & Smith, L.L.C., Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for Appellants.

Paula Wright Coleman, United States Department of Labor, Washington, D.C., for Appellee.

ON BRIEF: Robin E. Shea, Kristine M. Howard, Constangy, Brooks & Smith, L.L.C., Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for Appellants.

Howard M. Radzely, Solicitor of Labor, Steven J. Mandel, Associate Solicitor, Paul L. Frieden, for Appellate Litigation, United States Department of Labor, Washington, D.C., for Appellee.

Before WIDENER and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges, and BEEZER, Senior Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, sitting by designation.

Reversed, vacated, and remanded with instructions by published opinion. Judge WILLIAMS wrote the opinion, in which Judge WIDENER and Senior Judge BEEZER joined.


WILLIAMS, Circuit Judge:

In this case, the North Carolina Growers Association, Inc.,1 Sexton Tree Farms and Sexton Associates, Highland Fraser Firs, and New River Tree Co. (collectively the Growers) appeal the district court's ruling in favor of the United States Department of Labor (the DOL). The district court found that the Growers violated § 207 of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, 29 U.S.C.A. §§ 201-219 (West 1998 & Supp.2003) (FLSA), by failing to pay overtime to their workers involved in Christmas tree farming. On appeal, the Growers argue that, because their employees are "employed in agriculture," they are exempted from the FLSA's overtime pay provisions under § 213(b)(12), and that the district court erred in finding that Christmas tree farming was not "agriculture" as that term is defined by § 203(f) of the FLSA. The Growers also appeal the grant of a permanent injunction against future violations of the FLSA. Because we find that Christmas tree farming is "agriculture," we reverse the grant of summary judgment in favor of the DOL and remand the case to the district court with instructions to enter judgment in favor of the Growers. We also vacate the permanent injunction against the Growers.


The facts of this case are essentially undisputed. Although consumers decorate their homes with Christmas trees for just a few weeks each year, cultivating a proper Christmas tree takes substantial effort and management.2 The process begins with the planting of tree seedlings in a nursery. While the trees grow in the nursery, they are treated with fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides to encourage growth and reduce the incidence of weeds, insects, and disease. After approximately three years, the seedlings are transplanted into lineout beds, where they remain for two more seasons. The small trees are then lifted and planted into cultivated soil that is tested by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture on a yearly basis to determine whether mineral or fertilizer applications are necessary. The trees are planted in rows, about four or five feet apart, and they remain in the ground until they are harvested for use as seasonal trees, generally seven to ten years after being planted in the ground. While in the soil, the trees are pruned and sheared yearly; they also are treated twice a year with herbicides and fertilized once or twice a year. When necessary, pesticides are applied. Most Christmas tree farms use sprinklers to water the tree seedlings while they grow in the nurseries and lineout beds and sometimes when the trees are planted in the field.

Christmas trees are usually harvested with chainsaws at the rate of 1,000 per day, although some are bagged for sale with the root ball intact. In choosing which trees to harvest, Christmas tree farmers grade the trees based on "uniform density, good shape, color and needle retention" as well as height. (J.A. at 353.) Christmas trees are harvested individually based on these criteria; growers do not harvest entire rows at a time. After the sorted trees are cut down, they are baled, taken to storage, and then hauled in bulk to their end destinations. Christmas trees are sold for ornamental purposes, typically during the Christmas season. At the close of the Christmas season, purchased trees usually are discarded, although consumers who purchase Christmas trees with the root ball intact usually replant them for ornamental purposes after the Christmas season.


This appeal results from an enforcement action brought by the DOL against the Growers for their failure to pay overtime to their seasonal workers, as required by § 207 of the FLSA. The FLSA requires employers to pay overtime to most hourly workers, but employees who are "employed in agriculture" are exempt from the FLSA's over-time provisions. 29 U.S.C.A. § 213(b)(12) (West 1999). Because Christmas tree farm operations intensify as the Christmas season approaches, most farms require seasonal labor to help harvest the trees. In 1993, the Growers sought to hire a workforce of legal aliens to perform these seasonal services on their Christmas tree farms. The Growers applied for and received permission to hire seasonal alien workers as non-agricultural employees under the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). 8 U.S.C.A. § 1188 (West 2004). Because the DOL classified these alien workers as non-agricultural employees in granting the applications, the Growers considered Christmas tree farming to be non-agricultural and accordingly paid the seasonal workers overtime. In 1995, however, the DOL informed the Growers that it considered the seasonal workers to be agricultural employees for purposes of IRCA. Under IRCA, employers of seasonal agricultural employees must provide the employees with certain statutorily defined benefits, such as free housing, meals, and transportation. See, e.g., 8 U.S.C.A. § 1188(c)(4); 20 C.F.R. § 655.102(b). After receiving notice of the DOL's position, the Growers began providing the benefits required by IRCA to their seasonal employees but ceased paying their workers overtime, believing that the DOL considered their employees agricultural and thus exempt from the overtime provisions of the FLSA.

Contrary to the Growers' belief, the DOL informed them that it considered the Growers' seasonal employees to be agricultural employees under IRCA, but that they were not employees engaged in agriculture under the FLSA.3 The Growers objected to this system of dual classification, whereby they were required to provide free housing and other benefits while also paying overtime to the laborers, and, until the filing of this enforcement action, they refused to pay overtime to their seasonal workers.4

The Secretary of Labor filed an enforcement action against the Growers on August 5, 1998, requesting back pay and an injunction for the Growers' alleged violation of the FLSA. Following discovery, both parties moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether Christmas tree farming fell within the agricultural exemption to the FLSA. On September 4, 2003, by published opinion, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the DOL and awarded back pay in an amount to be determined by the parties. The district court also issued an injunction against the Growers to ensure their future compliance with the FLSA.5 See Chao v. North Carolina Growers Ass'n, 280 F.Supp.2d 500, 511-12 (W.D.N.C.2003). The Growers appeal, and we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C.A. § 1291 (West 1993). On appeal, the Growers argue that Christmas tree farming falls within the definition of "agriculture" in § 203(f), while the DOL contends that, as determined by the district court, § 203(f) is ambiguous, and we should defer to its interpretive bulletins, which define Christmas tree farming as forestry, and not agriculture. Although we recognize that the DOL's interpretation is long standing, we agree with the Growers that Christmas tree farming falls within the definition of agriculture in § 203(f).


We review the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the DOL de novo. Am. Chiropractic Ass'n v. Trigon Healthcare, Inc., 367 F.3d 212, 221 (4th Cir.2004). Summary judgment is appropriate "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c) (West 1994); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).


The FLSA is the "minimum wage/maximum hour law." Monahan v. County of Chesterfield, 95 F.3d 1263, 1266 (4th Cir.1996) (internal quotation marks omitted). The congressional purpose in passing the FLSA was "to protect all covered workers from substandard wages and oppressive working hours." Barrentine v. Arkansas-Best Freight Sys., Inc., 450 U.S. 728, 739, 101 S.Ct. 1437, 67 L.Ed.2d 641 (1981). Pursuant to that goal, coverage under the FLSA is construed "liberally to apply to the furthest reaches consistent with congressional direction." Mitchell v. Lublin, McGaughy & Assocs., 358 U.S. 207, 211, 79 S.Ct. 260, 3 L.Ed.2d 243 (1959). Accordingly, "[e]xemptions from or exceptions to the Act's requirements are to be narrowly construed." Monahan, 95 F.3d at 1267 (quoting Johnson v. City of Columbia, 949 F.2d 127, 129-30 (4th Cir.1991)) (alteration in original). Furthermore, "application [of an exemption is] limited to those establishments plainly and unmistakably within [its] terms and spirit."...

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