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Cordova v. R & A Oysters, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

April 29, 2015

MIGUEL ANGEL FUENTES CORDOVA, et al., etc., Plaintiffs,
v.
R & A OYSTERS, INC., et al., Defendants

For Miguel Angel Fuentes Cordova, Leobardo Morales Inclan, Plaintiffs: Eunice Cho, James Melvin Knoepp, LEAD ATTORNEYS, PRO HAC VICE, Atlanta, GA; Meredith Blake Stewart, LEAD ATTORNEYS, PRO HAC VICE, New Orleans, LA; Samuel Jacob Brooke, LEAD ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER, Montgomery, AL.

For R& A Oysters, Inc., Rodney L. Fox, Ann P. Fox, Defendants: Rick Andrew LaTrace, LEAD ATTORNEY, Johnstone, Adams, Bailey, Gordon & Harris, L.L.C., Mobile, AL Alan C. Christian, Johnstone Adams, LLC, Mobile, AL; Celia J. Collins, Johnstone, Adams, Bailey, Gordon & Harris, Mobile, AL; Spencer Harrison Larche, Mobile, AL.

Page 1193

ORDER

WILLIAM H. STEELE, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

This matter is before the Court on the defendants' motion to dismiss. (Doc. 31). The parties have filed briefs in support of their respective positions, (Docs. 32, 38, 40, 47-48), and the motion is ripe for resolution. After careful consideration, the Court concludes that the motion is due to be granted in part and denied in part.

BACKGROUND

According to the amended complaint, (Doc. 20), the two plaintiffs are migrant workers admitted to work in the United States under the H-2B temporary foreign worker visa program. The plaintiffs worked for the defendants at various times between 2008 and 2014, shucking oysters (separating them from the shell), preparing oysters on the half shell (removing just the top shell), and performing other activities related to oyster processing.

Counts I and V of the amended complaint allege violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (" FLSA" ). Counts II and VI allege violations of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Protection Act (" AWPA" ). Counts III and IV assert claims for breach of contract. The defendants seek dismissal of all but the FLSA counts.

DISCUSSION

I. AWPA.

The plaintiffs claim to be " migrant agricultural workers" protected by AWPA. (Doc. 20 at 3). A migrant agricultural worker " means an individual who is employed in agricultural employment" of a certain kind. 29 U.S.C. § 1802(8)(A). Thus, to have a claim under AWPA, the plaintiffs must have been employed in " agricultural employment."

The term " agricultural employment" is defined three ways. The first two definitions require employment in a service or activity within the contemplation of certain provisions of either the FLSA or the Internal Revenue Code. The third defines " agricultural employment" as " the handling, planting, drying, packing, packaging, processing, freezing, or grading prior to delivery for storage of any agricultural or horticultural commodity in its unmanufactured state." 29 U.S.C. § 1802(3).

" In order to fall within the first two definitions of 'agricultural employment,' the work must be performed 'on a farm.'" Morante-Navarro v. T& Y Pine Straw, Inc., 350 F.3d 1163, 1167 (11th Cir. 2003) (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 203(f) and 26 U.S.C. § 3121(g)). The plaintiffs concede their work does not satisfy either of these definitions; instead, they argue that they satisfy the third statutory definition of " agricultural employment." (Doc. 38 at 7-8). The defendants do not deny that shucking oysters and preparing them on the half shell constitutes " handling" the oysters in their " unmanufactured state," but they deny that oysters are an " agricultural ... commodity" within the third definition. (Doc. 32 at 8).

The first two definitions of " agricultural employment" were part of the original Farm Labor Contractor Registration Act of 1963 (" FLCRA" ). The third definition was added by the 1974 amendments to the

Page 1194

FLCRA, and all three definitions were carried over unchanged into AWPA (which replaced the FLCRA) in 1983.[1] Even though the third definition of " agricultural employment" has been on the books for over 40 years, it appears that only in the past few months have litigants begun to insist that it encompasses work with products of the sea. Two sister courts have recently ruled that oysters do not constitute an " agricultural commodity" under AWPA. See Bojorquez-Moreno v. Shores & Ruark Seafood Co., 92 F.Supp.3d 459, 2015 WL 1236765 (E.D. Va. 2015); Araiza-Calzada v. Webb's Seafood, Inc., 49 F.Supp.3d 1001, 2014 WL 4452228 (N.D. Fla. 2014). The Court now adds its voice to that chorus.

" As in any statutory construction case, we start, of course, with the statutory text, and proceed from the understanding that unless otherwise defined, statutory terms are generally interpreted in accordance with their ordinary meaning." Sebelius v. Cloer, 133 S.Ct. 1886, 1893, 185 L.Ed.2d 1003 (2013) (internal quotes omitted). Neither " agriculture" nor " agricultural" is a defined term under AWPA, so the Court looks for the ordinary meaning of the terms.

" In determining the ordinary meaning of statutory terms, we often find guidance in dictionary definitions." In re: James, 406 F.3d 1340, 1343 (11th Cir. 2005). The Supreme Court does so as well.[2] Indeed, the Eleventh Circuit has reviewed dictionary definitions of " agriculture" in construing Section 1802(3). Morante-Navarro, 350 F.3d at 1167-68.

Those definitions are remarkably consistent. " Agriculture" is " [t]he science, art, and business of cultivating soil, producing crops, and raising livestock; farming," [3]" [t]he science or art of cultivating soil, harvesting crops, and raising livestock," [4] or " [t]he science, art and business of cultivating the soil, producing crops, and raising livestock; farming." [5] Numerous online dictionaries provide substantively identical definitions, as did printed dictionaries in earlier periods.[6] As is immediately ...


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