Citrus grove owner not joint employer under common law

The owner of a citrus grove that utilized migrant workers under the H-2A visa program to harvest citrus fruit was not the workers’ joint employer under common law, ruled the Eleventh Circuit. The Immigration and Nationality Act governed the H-2A visa program, and Congress intended this statute to carry the definition of the term “employer” from the common law of agency, the appeals court concluded. Applying the common-law definition in this case, the appeals court concluded that the grove owner was not an ’employer,’ and so was not the migrant workers’ joint employer for purposes of their breach of contract action.

The migrant workers were in the United States under the H-2A visa program. They were hired by a farm labor contractor to pick fruit at groves owned by Consolidated Citrus. (In addition to engaging contractors to hire workers, the grove owner hired some of its own laborers directly.) The labor contractor recruited the workers, submitted clearance orders to the Department of Labor, and ultimately hired them for work in Consolidated’s groves. The grove owner had no role in deciding how much the contractor paid them. Without the grove owner’s knowledge, the contractor forced the workers to kick back a portion of their paychecks under threat of deportation.

Wage claims

Based on a theory that the grove owner and farm labor contractor were joint employers under the law, the workers named Consolidated Citrus as a defendant in their FLSA and breach of contract lawsuit. The contractor settled with the workers and ceased being a party to the lawsuit. Following a bench trial, Consolidated Citrus was found liable under both claims.

In a prior appearance before the Eleventh Circuit, the appeals court upheld liability against the grove owner on the workers’ FLSA claim, but remanded the breach of contract claim. It found that the district court mistakenly applied the definition of “employer” from the FLSA in determining whether the grove owner was a joint employer for purposes of resolving the contract claim. That claim depended on the definition of “employer” under general common-law principles. On remand, the district court again determined that the grove owner was an employer for purposes of the contract claim. The grove owner challenged that determination.

FLSA definition versus common-law definition

As an initial matter, the Eleventh Circuit noted that some confusion appears to exist concerning the practical ways in which the definition of “employer” under the FLSA and the same term under general common-law principles differ. The contracts at the center of the workers’ breach of contract claims are the workers’ clearance orders issued under the H-2A program, which requires compliance with the H-2A statutory and regulatory framework. That framework used the term “employer.” So the Eleventh Circuit began by reviewing the meaning of that term under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Notably, neither the INA nor relevant regulations expressly defines the term “employer.”

But the appeals court observed that the word “employer” does have a particular meaning in the common law. As explained in Garcia-Celestino I, when a federal statute contains a term with a settled meaning under the common law, courts presume Congress meant to import that meaning unless the statute says otherwise. Since the INA does not define “employer,” the Eleventh Circuit concluded that Congress intended the statute to carry the definition of that term from the common law of agency. Consequently, whether the workers’ contracts made Consolidated Citrus a joint employer under the INA depended on the definition of “employer” taken from the general common law of agency.

Right of control

In Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company v. Darden, the Supreme Court articulated several factors relevant to determining whether an employer-employee relationship exists at common law. Foremost among those factors was “the hiring entity’s” right to control the manner and means by which the product is accomplished. But the right of control is not dispositive. Rather, other aspects of the relationship between the putative employer and employee must be considered. In this instance, though the worker performed work at groves owned by Consolidated Citrus, the grove owner was not the “hiring party.” Beginning with “right of control,” the appeals court found the source of “the instrumentalities and tools,” the location of the work,” and “the provision of worker benefits” relevant factors.

General common law

First examining the factors favoring a determination that Consolidated Citrus was not a common-law employer, the appeals court found that it did not exhibit significant control over the manner and means of the laborers’ work under general common law. Here, it was clear that the labor contractor enjoyed that right. The contractor alone communicated with the laborers as they worked. Other factors also indicated that Consolidated Citrus was not an employer under the common law. First, the contractor was the source of the workers’ instrumentalities and tools. Further, the provision of employee benefits was solely the province of the contractor. Third, the contractor retained the great bulk of discretion over when and how long the workers could work.

Although the workers performed their work at its groves, picking citrus fruit is at the heart of its business, and it could assign them additional work by increasing their daily production targets, these factors, on balance, did not outweigh the labor contractor’s right of control and the other factors favoring a finding that Consolidated was not the laborers’ employer under the common-law standard.

Thus, applying the common-law definition of “employer” to this case, the appeals court concluded that Consolidated Citrus was not an “employer” under the common law definition of that term and, therefore, was not a joint employer for purposes of the workers’ breach of contract claim. The Eleventh Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment and instructed the court on remand to enter judgment in Consolidated’s favor on the breach of contract claim. (Garcia-Celestino v. Ruiz Harvesting, Inc., 11thCir, 169 LC 36,641.)

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