The U.S. Department of Labor said it’s negotiating a possible end to litigation with Oregon blueberry farms the agency accused of “hot goods” labor law violations.
The agency has asked a federal judge to postpone proceedings in its lawsuit against the growers while they try to reach a resolution.
In 2012, the agency claimed that Pan-American Berry Growers and B&G Ditchen paid pickers less than the minimum wage, rendering their blueberries unlawfully harvested “hot goods” that can’t be shipped in interstate commerce.
The farms agreed to pay $220,000 and waive their right to challenge DOL’s findings so the agency would lift the “hot goods” objection, thus preventing their crop from rotting.
Those deals were found to be unlawfully coercive earlier this year by a federal judge who vacated the settlements and re-opened the litigation.
Since then, the legal conflict has escalated. The farmers demanded their money back, plus $150,000 in damages for the shipping delay that hurt fruit quality.
DOL countered that it couldn’t return the money that had already been disbursed to workers and refused to pay damages or attorney fees.
The agency also upped the ante in its complaints against the farms, seeking to add new defendants and additional charges of wrongdoing stretching back further in time.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin was set to hear oral arguments on DOL’s motion to broaden the charges against the farms on Dec. 3 and to accept court briefs regarding the payment of restitution and attorney fees.
The agency has now asked him to postpone that hearing until Jan. 13, 2015 and delay court briefing of the other legal issues.
DOL and the farms “have exchanged proposals for resolution of all the combined cases in this matter” and it may conserve the resources of everyone involved if the proceedings were delayed, the agency said in court documents.
The DOL’s documents claim that Tim Bernasek, the farmers’ attorney, has agreed to postpone the oral arguments and briefings but Capital Press was unable to reach him for confirmation.