U.S. appeals court allows six Mexican veterinarians’ suit alleging ‘forced labor and trafficking’ by a rural Idaho dairy using intentional ‘bait-and-switch’ scheme

A lawsuit filed in 2017 by long-time United Farm Workers lawyers at Martinez Aguilasocho Law Inc. on behalf of six Mexican veterinarians against a rural Idaho dairy that allegedly violated U.S. laws against forced labor and trafficking of persons into forced labor” was reinstated on Monday, April 18 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit after it was dismissed by a federal judge in Boise (emphasis added to excerpt from judges’ ruling). (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, No. 19-35526, D.C. No. 1:17-cv-00001-DCN “Opinion,” Page 3)

The veterinarian plaintiffs in the suit, who were repeatedly threatened with deportation by the dairy if they complained (P. 14), sought help from the UFW and UFW Foundation, which referred them to attorneys from Martínez Aguilasocho Law.

The unanimous 34-page decision by a three-judge panel of the ninth circuit, in an opinion written by Judge Daniel P. Collins, reversed the summary judgement of a federal district judge in Boise “in favor of [the dairy] on claims of violation of federal statutory prohibitions on forced labor [and] reversed the district court’s decision…and remanded” the case back to the federal court in Idaho. (P. 2)

  • The veterinarians were recruited in Mexico to work at Funk Dairy near Murtaugh in southern Idaho as “Animal Scientists” through the TN Visa program under the North American Free Trade Agreement. “When the [veterinarians] arrived at the dairy to perform [their] professional services, they were instead required to work substantially as general laborers” performing menial work, the appeals judges ruled. (P. 2) Abuse of the TN Visas was part of the dairy’s “bait-and-switch” scheme, the appellate court stated, that “was intended rather than incidental” (opinion’s emphasis). (P. 27)
  • The veterinarians were forced to toil in 12-hour shifts, six days per week through miserable and unsanitary living and working conditions. (P. 13) One veterinarian who “fractured her finger at work” was refused a day off because the dairy manager said “she ‘had nine other fingers.’” (P. 13-14) The same manager delayed emergency room care for another veterinarian whose finger was severed in a work site incident, precluding her “from having the severed portion reattached.” (P. 13-14)

Abuses of TN Visa program. The appeals court noted that the six veterinarians were “citizens of Mexico who were recruited to work as ‘Animal Scientists’ at Funk Dairy in Idaho under the ‘TN Visa’ program for ‘professional’ employees established under the North American Free Trade Agreement. But when [the veterinarians] arrived at the dairy, they were instead required to work substantially as general laborers.” (P. 2)

The appellate judges noted the dairy “conceded that all [the veterinarians] believed that their ability to remain lawfully in the U.S. depended on their continued employment at Funk Dairy. The [appeals] panel concluded that in light of that concession…a reasonable jury could [have found had the case gone to trial] that Funk Dairy knowingly obtained [the veterinarians’] labor by abusing the TN Visa process in order to exert pressure on [the Mexicans] to provide labor that was substantially different from what had been represented to them and to federal consular officials” at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City (P. 3)

 “In fact, Funk Dairy’s employment records listed each [veterinarian’s] position as ‘Milker,’ ‘Outside Help,’ or simply ‘Calves.’ And in a worker’s compensation injury report, [one veterinarian’s] occupation was listed as ‘General Dairy Worker,’” according to the judges. (P. 25)

All of the veterinarians “testified about the substantial volume of general labor that they were required to perform,” the appeals jurists ruled. They included “lifting, moving, and feeding baby cows, folding towels, cleaning equipment, connecting milking hoses, transporting cows, picking up trash, washing feeding basins, and removing feces.” (P. 25)

Dairy created a “bait-and-switch.” “Funk Dairy’s abuse of the TN Visa program placed [the veterinarians] in a bait-and-switch situation in which [they] journeyed from Mexico to Idaho with one set of work expectations only to be required upon arrival to perform a substantial volume of menial work,” the appeals court decided. A “jury could find that the inherently coercive pressure of Funk Dairy’s bait-and-switch was intended rather than incidental” (opinion’s emphasis). Funk Dairy manager Curtis Giles, who was the son-in-law of the owners, “made statements to each [veterinarian] that fostered a belief that, if [they] did not go along with what Funk Dairy wanted—which would include its bait-and-switch—they would be sent back to Mexico.” (P. 27)

Violations of U.S. laws against forced labor. The federal appeals court ruled that, “Given the evidence of a sharp disparity between the ‘sophisticated, professional’ tasks that Funk Dairy described during the TN Visa process [to recruit the veterinarians] and the general labor Funk Dairy subsequently demanded of [them], a reasonable jury could find that Funk Dairy used the TN Visa program ‘in [a] manner’ and ‘for [a] purpose for which [it] was not designed,’” the appeals panel concluded, quoting language from the U.S. law against forced labor. (Ps. 26-27)

The federal appellate panel held that, “Funk Dairy’s conduct violated the provisions [of federal law] that prohibit forced labor and trafficking of persons into forced labor” (emphasis added). (P. 3)

“We conclude that the evidence…would permit a reasonable jury to find that Funk Dairy knowingly ‘obtain[ed] the labor’ of [the veterinarians] through the particular means enumerated in [the federal laws against forced labor], namely, abuse of law or legal process.” (P. 19)

Miserable working conditions. The conditions under which the six veterinarians were made to labor included miserable housing and unsanitary circumstances. Initial housing for one veterinarian “was in a basement that lacked heating and was infested with mice and spiders.” (P. 13) Dairy manager Giles “did not allow the four female [veterinarian] who initially lived together in a house owned by Funk Dairy, to have visitors, and Giles had someone watch their house to ensure that this rule was followed.” (P. 13)

According to the ninth circuit ruling, “Giles, who oversaw [the veterinarians] and their working conditions, was often unwilling to accommodate [their] health needs or provide appropriate medical care for workplace injuries. Although Giles knew that [veterinarian] Neri [Ricardo Neri-Camacho] had diabetes, Neri was not allowed consistent breaks or a regularly scheduled lunch.” (Ps. 13-14) “The reality [for the veterinarians] was that 12-hour shifts, six days a week were mandatory, and some [of them] stated that Giles regularly denied rest, meal, and bathroom breaks. At times, workers at the dairy used a bucket to relieve themselves due to the lack of facilities in parts of the farm.” (Ps. 13-14)

Failure to provide appropriate medical care for work site injuries. The appeals court reported that when veterinarian Dalia Padilla-Lopez “fractured her finger at work, Giles refused to change her work schedule or allow her a day off, telling her that she ‘had nine other fingers.’” (Ps. 13-14)

The appeals judges observed that, “When a hydraulic bar in the milking parlor cut off part of [veterinarian Mayra Munoz-Lara’s] finger, Giles delayed Munoz from reaching an emergency room by instructing the on-duty employee enroute with her to a hospital to return to the dairy to collect the severed portion, [to] take her to a cheaper hospital, and switch drivers to an off-duty employee. The resulting delay prevented Munoz from having the severed portion reattached.” (Ps. 13-14)

“Accordingly, [the veterinarians] presented sufficient evidence to establish a forced labor claim under [U.S. law]. The district court [in Boise] therefore erred in granting summary judgement to [the dairy].” (P. 33)

The decision is considered by many legal scholars to be a landmark ruling clarifying for judges, lawyers, and advocates that forced labor comes in many forms and does not always require chains or physical imprisonment, attorneys for the veterinarians said.

Some of the veterinarian plaintiffs are available for interviews.