In an unpublished opinion, a divided Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel has determined that a district court erred in awarding Latino farm workers less than statutory damages for growers’ violations of Washington’s Farm Labor Contractors Act (FLCA). Perez-Farias v. Global Horizons, Inc., No. 10-35397 (9th Cir., decided August 17, 2011). The court remanded the case with directions to enter a damages award of nearly $2 million.

The class claims were reportedly filed on behalf of more than 600 workers who accused two state growers and a farm labor contractor of violating federal labor laws. The plaintiffs claimed that they were illegally and intentionally displaced in 2004 by temporary agricultural workers from Thailand. The federal guestworker program allows labor contractors to bring foreign workers into the United States only if it can prove that workers cannot be found locally. While the lower court agreed that the defendants had violated the law, it awarded the plaintiffs $237,000.

The Ninth Circuit split over its interpretation of the FCLA’s damages provision, which states, “[I]f the court finds that the respondent has violated this chapter or any rule adopted under this chapter, it may award damages up to and including an amount equal to the amount of actual damages, or statutory damages of five hundred dollars per plaintiff per violation, whichever is greater, or other equitable relief.” The two-judge majority ruled that the only discretion given to the court under this provision is to choose between actual damages or statutory damages, “whichever is greater,” and not that the court could choose to award less than $500 per plaintiff, which the lower court evidently did. The court also remanded the matter for the district court to decide whether to award attorneys’ fees to the plaintiffs as the prevailing party.

One of the lead plaintiffs was quoted as saying, “This is a huge victory for local farm workers in the Yakima Valley. We’ve waited a long time for this day, and we’re glad the court validated these important worker rights.” Counsel for the farm labor contractor reportedly indicated that his client would likely be unable to pay the award. “My clients are now eating at fast-food restaurants and they aren’t getting the large fries,” he said. The company has apparently lost its state operating license for repeated wage and labor law violations and has purportedly been the target of human trafficking charges in Hawaii. See Associated Press, August 17, 2011.