Dairy must face forced-labor claims by Mexican veterinarians

Holstein dairy cows feed at a farm in central Washington in this December, 24, 2003 file photo. REUTERS/Jeff Green/File Photo
  • Vets claim menial tasks amounted to unlawful forced labor
  • Their fear of deportation was enough to keep case alive, court says

(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Monday revived a lawsuit by six Mexican veterinarians who claim an Idaho dairy forced them to milk cows and perform other menial tasks, and threatened them with deportation if they refused.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a jury could find that Funk Dairy Inc violated a federal law prohibiting forced labor by exploiting the plaintiffs' fear of losing their visas if they were fired, and a federal judge should not have tossed out the case.

The court said the key allegation keeping the lawsuit alive was a claim that Funk Dairy's manager directly threatened one of the plaintiffs with deportation after she complained about her job assignments.

Funk Dairy's lawyers at Sawtooth Law Offices did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Nor did the plaintiffs' lawyers at Martinez Aguilasocho Law.

Funk Dairy in 2014 recruited the plaintiffs through the TN visa program, which allows citizens of Mexico and Canada to temporarily enter the U.S. to “engage in business activities at a professional level." The plaintiffs were all licensed veterinarians or animal scientists in Mexico, according to court filings.

The workers in a 2017 lawsuit claimed that they understood their job duties would include ensuring the quality of milk and overseeing the care given to animals. Instead, they said, they were forced to perform the same menial tasks as general laborers employed by Funk.

A federal judge in Boise, Idaho, dismissed the case in 2019, saying the plaintiffs could not show that Funk knowingly compelled the plaintiffs to work against their will as required by the federal law.

But the 9th Circuit on Monday said the plaintiffs' belief that they would be deported if they refused to engage in physical labor, and the alleged threat by the manager, were enough to send the case to a jury.

The panel included Circuit Judges Daniel Collins and Marsha Berzon and Judge Jennifer Choe-Groves of the U.S. Court of International Trade, who sat by designation.

The case is Martinez-Rodriguez v. Giles, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 19-35526.

For the plaintiffs: Edgar Aguilasocho of Martinez Aguilasocho Law

For the defendants: David Claiborne of Sawtooth Law Offices

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.