10/04/2006

Forestry Lawsuit Wins Class Certification

A federal court in Atlanta has granted class action status to a Center lawsuit that seeks to reform abusive employment practices rampant in the nation's forestry industry.

The ruling last week means the Center's Immigrant Justice Project (IJP) can litigate on behalf of thousands of migrant agricultural workers who were legally admitted to the United States to work under a temporary foreign worker visa program. Brought from Mexico and Guatemala, the workers plant pine trees in the southeastern states, the nation's largest timber-producing region.

Without class certification, the lawsuit would benefit only the handful of workers who joined the case as named plaintiffs.

The lawsuit, Escolastico de Leon-Granados et al. v. Eller and Sons Trees, Inc., is one of four similar cases brought by the Center on behalf of indigent workers who left their homes and families, often risking their life savings on the venture. They do backbreaking work, a job the timber contractors certify that American workers are unwilling to do.

Tree planters routinely work 60 or more hours each week but earn substantially less than the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. They are often not paid overtime and often have to pay for their own work tools, visas and travel expenses, in violation of the law.

In addition to certifying the class, U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper ruled that a six-year statute of limitations, rather than two years, as Eller attorneys argued, applied in the lawsuit. It was the first time a court has determined a deadline for migrant workers to file claims under the Migrant & Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act in Georgia.

"This is very significant for the practice of labor law in Georgia, and we hope Georgia will be a persuasive example to other southern courts which have to decide how long to give migrant workers to assert their claims," said IJP attorney Andrew Turner.

The statute-of-limitations ruling may double the number of workers IJP will be able to serve, Turner said. Under Eller's proposed two-year statute, the size of the class would have been fewer than 2,000. Now that the court has given eligibility to workers who were employed by Eller since 1999, the class may be as large as 4,000.

"We are always gratified to be able to serve more poor people in one case," Turner said. "It maximizes our efforts. The good decisions on statue of limitations and on class certification are very much related. Both have broadened the reach of the Eller case in a way that helps us to bring justice to more people."

Judge Cooper also ordered the forestry company to provide IJP lawyers the documents they requested.