A federal judge has issued a blistering critique of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying the agency had brought a lawsuit against growers that was “baseless, unreasonable and frivolous.”
The decision on March 18 by U.S. District Court Judge Edward Shea ordered the EEOC to pay attorneys’ fees, expenses and costs to defendants Valley Fruit Orchards and Green Acre Farms in the case EEOC v. Global Horizons, Inc. et all.
The EEOC claimed that the growers and their labor contractor Global Horizons of Beverly Hills, California, had discriminated against Thai nationals brought to the U.S. under the H-2A visa program. The issues date back to 2004 and 2005, when Global brought Thais to work at Valley Fruit and Green Acre Farms in Washington State and at other agricultural enterprises in California, Hawaii and elsewhere.
According to a press release by the law firm Stokes Lawrence, which represented the growers, the defense had previously obtained dismissal of all claims brought by the EEOC. The new ruling by Judge Shea said the defendants were entitled to recovery of their attorney fees because the EEOC had failed to conduct a reasonable and diligent investigation before bringing the lawsuit.
Judge Shea’s decision appears to be a sharp rebuke to the EEOC, which had promoted its case as the largest human trafficking case ever brought in the agriculture industry. Through a spokesperson, the EEOC did not respond to the judge’s statements.
According to Stokes Lawrence,
Judge Shea concluded that that “the EEOC failed to conduct an adequate investigation before filing the lawsuit against the Grower Defendants and as a result its Title VII claim against the Grower Defendants were baseless, unreasonable, and frivolous.” Judge Shea specifically focused on the Grower Defendants’ pre-lawsuit communications with the EEOC where Stokes Lawrence attorneys repeatedly requested basic information regarding the allegations against their clients and advised the EEOC that the charges of discrimination failed to describe the purported discrimination with sufficient specificity so as to put the Grower Defendants on notice of their allegedly illegal conduct.
Also troubling to Judge Shea were EEOC interview notes with Thai workers who had worked on the Eastern Washington farms that did not identify any unlawful discrimination, including hostile work environment, unfair treatment, or constructive discharge. The EEOC’s refusal to examine work invoices and other documents the Grower Defendants repeatedly offered to share was another indication of the EEOC’s failure to conduct a reasonable investigation. In light of the vague and unexplained charges, the District Court determined that it was unsurprising that the Grower Defendants rejected the EEOC’s pre-lawsuit demand for $30 million in monetary damages.
Justo Gonzalez, a Stoke Lawrence attorney, praised the judge’s ruling as providing a “dose of accountability” for the EEOC.
“When this case started, the EEOC called it the largest human trafficking case in agriculture history, and referred to our clients as modern slave traders. The Court’s decision further validates that the accusations were false,” said Gonzalez. “The EEOC’s sparse investigation and minimal efforts to cooperate with our clients before filing suit were fully documented, which increased the likelihood of a court agreeing with us that the EEOC’s case was frivolous from the very start.”
The entirety of Judge Shea’s ruling can be found at http://www.stokeslaw.com/uploads/pdf/614-order-granting-the-grower-defendants-joint-motion-for-attorneys-fee—.pdf