Southern New Jersey Farm Sues Department of Labor, Alleging Illegal Fines

Sun Valley Orchards, LLC filed suit Wednesday in the District of New Jersey against the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and the Secretary of Labor, Martin J. Walsh, over the DOL’s allegedly illegal imposition of a monetary penalty of half a million dollars upon the plaintiff.

According to the complaint, Sun Valley Orchards is a “family farm in southern New Jersey that grows a variety of vegetables, including peppers, squash, eggplant, cucumbers, and asparagus.” The farm began participating in the H-2A visa program in 2015, claiming that they “had no real choice” but to do so since the farm was “increasingly unable to meet its needs out of the domestic labor pool.” The complaint says the program is intended to allow for the “employment of foreign nationals as temporary agricultural workers in circumstances where an employer’s needs cannot be met out of the domestic labor pool.”

Sun Valley Orchards alleged that Congress has not authorized the Department of Labor to impose monetary penalties for perceived violations of the program by the employer. The plaintiff explained that the DOL’s perceived authority to impose monetary penalties is found in a single provision that is vague at best. Further, the plaintiff detailed that Congress has specifically provided that “whenever a civil fine, penalty or pecuniary forfeiture is prescribed for the violation of an Act of Congress without specifying the mode of recovery or enforcement thereof, it may be recovered in civil action.”

After filling out the extensive paperwork involved in entering the H-2A program, an inspector from the DOL came and assured the owners, the Marinos, that they did not need to change anything, as noted in the complaint. In 2016, the same inspector returned to Sun Valley Orchards, charging them with $550,000 in H-2A violations. Over half of this sum was imposed because Sun Valley Orchards did not describe their meal plan for the workers accurately.

The filing said that Sun Valley Orchards maintained the same meal plan following the 2015 season, but described it more thoroughly on its H-2A paperwork. The plaintiffs argue that because no penalties have been imposed since then, it is clear “that DOL’s sole concern with the meal plan in 2015 was that it was not fully described on the farm’s paperwork.”

The complaint cites counts of the DOL violating article III of the H-2A enforcement procedures, the penalties imposed in this case being excessive fines, the enforcement procedures not being authorized by statutes, and the agency’s decision not being supported by substantial evidence, among other things.

Sun Valley Orchards seeks an injunction enjoining the defendants from enforcing the penalties, a declaration that their procedures are a violation of statutes, that the monetary award in this case violates the Excessive Fines Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and that any decision made was not supported by substantial evidence. The plaintiff also seeks litigation costs and any other legal or equitable relief deemed just by the court.

The plaintiff is represented by Winegar, Wilhelm, Glynn & Roemersma.