One of the country's most powerful sugar companies is trying keep more than 1,400 West Indian cane cutters from suing for back wages by using a 19th century Florida law requiring they each put up bond, an attorney for the workers says.
The lawsuit is the last in a series of wage cases first brought in 1989 against five sugar companies. An attorney for the workers said he expects a state appeals court to rule any day on whether it will hear the workers' argument that the bond is unconstitutional.
The case was finally headed to trial in 2007, when Osceola's lawyers sought to have it thrown out because the workers failed to post the $100 per person bond. Osceola denies that it underpaid the workers.
Osceola Farms attorney Joe Klock said the bond was created to ensure defendants could collect the cost of the legal proceeding if they won their case.
"Their argument is that they're being denied access to the courts. They're not being denied access to courts. They just need to post a bond," he said. Klock said lawyers who work on contingency fees regularly post similar bonds on behalf of their clients for malpractice and other cases.
The workers, most of whom are from Jamaica, now farm or sell fruit or charcoal back home and say they barely make enough to feed their families. They want the state 4th District Court of Appeal in Palm Beach County to reverse a lower court and declare the fee — instituted when Florida was just a U.S. territory — unconstitutional.
The workers' attorney Greg Schell called the case "huge" for future guest workers in agricultural and other industries.
"If the circuit judges' ruling is upheld, it means that employers may import foreign guest workers, abuse and/or underpay them and get off scott-free if the workers are too destitute to pay the $100 cost bond," Schell said.
Schell, who works for the nonprofit Rural Legal Services, said his office receives about $500,000 a year to represent farmworkers throughout the state and that his co-counsel has a practice too small to shell out $145,000 up front. He said attorneys in the future will avoid wage cases on behalf of the most vulnerable workers if the Florida law is not changed.
The case has been bouncing around jurisdictions for more than two decades since it was first filed. Back then, it was part of a massive, class-action lawsuit which initially netted $51 million for the workers. That decision was later overruled. One company, U.S. Sugar, settled. The workers lost three other lawsuits. Osceola Farms is the remaining case and the last chance most of the 1,446 workers have of getting paid. Nearly 90 others are Florida residents and can continue with the case.
Schell said the workers are owed an average of a couple thousand dollars each, plus interest. The workers allege that on some occasions, they weren't paid the federally mandated minimum wage for guest workers or were overcharged for clothes and other basic items. The most common complaint was that hours were shaved off after they'd been worked. In response in part to the cases, the sugar companies have all switched to mechanical harvests.
In April, a Palm Beach County Circuit three-judge panel upheld the law without comment, but in a strongly worded dissent, Judge Jack Cox wrote that the statute is unconstitutional.
"Access to the courts is a fundamental right," he said. "Requiring a bond as a precondition for bringing an action does not necessarily violate the right of access to the court, but such bonds have been consistently disfavored by Florida courts."
Nearly two dozen law professors have also weighed in on the case, arguing that the $100 fee hasn't been increased in 180 years and hardly covers the defendants' expenses, which suggests that is no longer the purpose of the bond.
"Instead, the de facto function of the bond is to obstruct access to the courts on the basis of poverty," they wrote in a brief.
Source: AP News