In what farm-worker advocates call a key victory, a federal judge has returned to state court a lawsuit against a Santa Paula labor contractor stemming from use of a controversial employment program designed to offset worker shortages.
The lawsuit was filed last year on behalf of 10 Mexican laborers brought to Ventura County by labor broker Ralph De Leon under the federal guest-worker program.
De Leon recruited the laborers to pick lemons in the county's citrus heartland in what was believed to be the first large-scale use of guest workers in California agriculture.
Lawyers for the poverty law firm California Rural Legal Assistance filed the suit in September in Ventura County Superior Court, alleging nonpayment of wages and other violations of state law.
But attorneys for De Leon had the case moved to federal court late last year, arguing that federal law provides the exclusive remedy for alleged violations that take place under the labor program, known as H-2A.
U.S. District Court Judge Lourdes Baird disagreed. In an eight-page ruling earlier this month, Baird returned the matter to a Ventura court, saying the workers are entitled to the protections offered by state law.
"In creating a new system for the admission of H-2A workers ... there is no evidence that Congress intended to eliminate these workers' state law remedies," Baird wrote.
The ruling was hailed by attorneys for the Mexican laborers.
They have maintained that the lawsuit was not an attack on the guest-worker program, but an attempt to recoup lost wages and other damages.
"It means whether the workers are H-2A workers or not, employers have to abide by California laws," said Hector Martinez, with the Oxnard office of California Rural Legal Assistance.
Valencia attorney William Marrs, who is representing De Leon, said his client has not decided whether to appeal.
Marrs maintains that the H-2A program has procedures in place to deal with the workers' grievances and said he is concerned that the suit could have a chilling effect on other growers facing labor shortages.
"If every time someone wants to use the H-2A program in California he is going to face a lawsuit in state court, that will probably be enough to kill the program," Marrs said.
The California Rural Legal Assistance lawsuit accuses De Leon of failing to compensate workers for the hours spent traveling to and from job sites and for the time spent waiting at those locations to begin harvesting, as required by state law.
The suit also alleges that De Leon failed to properly pay overtime, frequently neglected to provide rest periods and lunch breaks, and failed to reimburse some workers for expenses incurred traveling to and from Mexico.
The suit seeks reimbursement for unpaid wages and other restitution totaling about $250,000.
In previous interviews, De Leon said he turned to the guest-worker program only after he was unable to find enough domestic pickers to work during Ventura County's citrus harvest.
The federal program, established under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, allows agricultural producers to temporarily tap foreign workers when domestic laborers are unavailable.