A new lawsuit launched by a fourth-generation family farm asks whether a single government agency can act as prosecutor, judge and jury when handing out potentially ruinous fines. Sun Valley Orchards, a produce farm in Swedesboro, N.J., is facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), mostly for a paperwork mistake. Now, the Institute for Justice (IJ) will represent owners Joe and Russell Marino in a suit that challenges the system DOL crafted to enforce the rules it writes.
“These penalties could destroy a fourth-generation family farm, and yet they’ve been imposed without the Marinos ever seeing a real federal judge,” said IJ Senior Attorney Rob Johnson. “The Constitution guarantees an independent judiciary, and that means employers like the Marinos are entitled to a real trial in a real court before the government can destroy their business.”
In 2015, Sun Valley Orchards struggled to find the workers it would need to harvest the produce growing in its southern New Jersey fields. For the first time ever, they decided to participate in the federal government program that would let them hire seasonal legal immigrants carrying H-2A visas. Because Joe and Russell knew that the program was complex, they hired a consultant to help them work through the paperwork.
After a visit to the farm in 2015, an inspector told the Marinos there were no problems. However, just months later, DOL officials returned with a letter saying the farm was being assessed $550,000 in penalties. The majority of the amount was because their paperwork did not use the right language to describe the otherwise legal meal plan the farm offered workers. In fact, the farm continued to offer the same plan in later years without a DOL complaint. Other penalties related to a dispute over whether some workers had left on their own or been fired.
“It was a shock to be first told everything was fine and then months later handed a devastating fine,” said Joe Marino. “From the moment we were handed the letter stating the penalties, the process felt rigged against us. All we want is an opportunity for a fair hearing to take a hard look at the facts in our case and whether the punishment fits the offense. It’s what every American should get when their livelihood is on the line.”
For almost five years, the Marinos fought the fines within DOL’s administrative law system. To police the H-2A visa program, DOL created the rules and the penalties for violation. The agency employs the investigators, the administrative law judges that hear cases, and the board that considers appeals. It is a system built without clear legislative direction and that is not overseen by a neutral member of the judiciary. The Marinos’ suit is aimed not only at stopping their fines, but also creating a fairer system overseen by federal courts, not bureaucrats.
The lawsuit also asks courts to consider whether six-figure fines for a paperwork mistake violate the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause. While the Supreme Court (in a case litigated by IJ) recently ruled that the excessive fines clause applies to all levels of government in the U.S., there is not a clear legal standard about when a fine becomes excessive. IJ is currently representing clients fighting fines over tall grass, parking in their own driveway and an unpermitted pigeon coop.
“Hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for a first-time paperwork violation is totally out of proportion,” said IJ Attorney Renée Flaherty. “Fortunately, the Constitution guarantees that a punishment must fit the offense.”
The Institute for Justice is joined in this case by local counsel Scott Wilhelm, of Winegar, Wilhelm, Glynn & Roemersma, P.C