Federal judge sides with dairy in human trafficking lawsuit

Posted at 5:36 AM, Jun 04, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-04 07:36:29-04

BOISE, Idaho — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by six Mexican veterinarians who say they were recruited to be animal scientists at an Idaho dairy but were instead forced to work as laborers.

U.S. District Judge David Nye said that while Funk Dairy Inc. managers used intimidating language in talking to the workers once they arrived in Murtaugh, Idaho, their actions didn't rise to the level of forcing the veterinarians to work.

In the lawsuit, veterinarians Cesar Martinez-Rodriguez, Dalia Padilla-Lopez, Mayra Munoz-Lara, Brenda Gastelum-Sierra, Leslie Ortiz-Garcia and Ricardo Neri-Camacho claimed that their employers exploited their fear, inability to speak English, and unfamiliarity with the American legal system to force them to stay at the dairy from 2014 to 2015. They said they were denied meal breaks, were given substandard housing and spent 12-hour days shoveling manure and milking cows rather than overseeing animal health and reproduction programs as promised.

They also said they were threatened with deportation if they didn't do their assigned work well.

But the judge said the comments made to the veterinarians about removal to Mexico weren't threats but rather statements of law: If they stopped working for the dairy, the U.S. would have the right to revoke their work visa status and send them back to Mexico.

The attorney representing the veterinarians, Edgar Ivan Aquilasocho, could not be immediately reached for comment.

David Claiborne, the attorney representing Funk Dairy, owner David Funk and manager Curtis Giles, also could not be immediately reached by The Associated Press for comment. He told the Capital Press in Salem, Oregon, last week that the court's dismissal of the lawsuit was a good outcome and that his clients always believed they'd done everything by the book, in accordance with state and federal law.

In court documents, Claiborne said the workers did do veterinary work in addition to some manual labor, and that while managers expected the employees to work hard, they were free to choose where they lived, where they traveled and whether they wanted to continue working at the dairy or not.

The judge agreed, saying there wasn't evidence of force.

"This is most strikingly evidenced by two facts: first, that three of the Plaintiffs quit during their tenure with Funk Dairy because they were dissatisfied with their employment; and second, that Funk Dairy terminated the remaining three employees because they were dissatisfied with their work performance," Nye wrote in the May 20 ruling. "If Funk Dairy was truly forcing Plaintiffs to perform labor, they would not have allowed three Plaintiffs to quit, nor terminated three Plaintiffs themselves."

Nye also said the terms of the work agreement — including the scope of the jobs, amount of pay, option for bonuses, paid vacation, and assistance with travel and housing costs — were never put in writing.

"At the least, the issues raised are disagreements about job duties, employment obligations, or expectations, and at the most they are employment, contract, or discrimination claims, but none of the testimony rises to the level of federal trafficking or forced labor," the judge wrote.