SCOTUS Reverses Ninth Circuit Ruling on California Farmworker Union Regulation

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United States decided to reverse the Ninth Circuit ruling on a property rights lawsuit, ruling in favor of the agricultural businesses who challenged a California regulation requiring them to allow union workers onto their property to talk to the farmworkers and advocate for unions. 

In the oral arguments in March, Cedar Point Nursery and Fowler Packing Co. claimed that the law requiring them to allow union organizers access to the workplace to teach farm workers about unions during 3 hours for 120 days each year is unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment’s Taking Clause. The lawsuit was filed after United Farm Workers organizers allegedly tried to take access of the plaintiffs’ property to convince their workers to join the union. The plaintiffs then filed the lawsuit to ask for the enforcement of the law to be enjoined. 

The Supreme Court in its ruling held that the access regulation does constitute “a per se physical taking.” The 6-3 decision included an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, a concurring opinion by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and a dissenting opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer with Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joining. 

The majority agreed that the California regulation restrains the employers’ use of their property to benefit a third party, and that the defendant’s argument that the limit of time and days means it cannot constitute a taking “is insupportable.” The ruling noted that “the Court has held that a physical appropriation is a taking whether it is permanent or temporary; the duration of the appropriation bears only on the amount of compensation due.” 

Chief Justice Roberts related that through the regulation, which is under the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, United Farm Workers entered the property of Cedar Point Nursery’s strawberry fields and led workers to protest and leave the worksite. The group also attempted to enter Fowler Packing Company’s grape and citrus farm, but the company blocked them from entering and the plaintiff received an unfair labor charge which was later withdrawn. 

The growers filed the federal district court lawsuit against board members of the union arguing that the regulation was unconstitutional and should not be enforced. The district court denied the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction, a decision which was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit also denied a rehearing en banc. The Supreme Court, however, reversed these decisions. 

“When the government physically acquires private property for public use, the Takings Clause imposes a clear and categorical obligation to provide the owner with just compensation,” Roberts said in the opinion.  “The access regulation appropriates a right to invade the growers’ property and therefore constitutes a per se physical taking. …  Rather than restraining the growers’ use of their own property, the regulation appropriates for the enjoyment of third parties the owners’ right to exclude.”

The justices in the dissenting opinion argued that the regulation, if it does appropriate or regulate the property rights, simply leads the government to need to pay the employers compensation.  They claimed that the provision “only awkwardly fits the terms ‘physical taking’ and ‘physical appropriation,’” as the union organizers are not taking any property interest, fees, or tenancy. “A right of access such as the right at issue here, a nonpermanent right, is not automatically a ‘taking,’” the dissent said. 

The petitioners are represented by Pacific Legal Foundation and Sagaser, Watkins & Wieland PC. The respondents are represented by the California Department of Justice. The matter is now remanded to the Ninth Circuit for further proceedings.