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Calf standing in the snow
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Tuesday, January 30th, 2024

Happy 2024! We hope your new calendar year has gotten off to a delightful start. As we close out the first of twelve months, we bring you another edition of the Ag Law Harvest. In this blog post, we delve into the intricate world of employment contracts and noncompete agreements, classifying workers as independent contractors or employees, Ag-Gag laws, and agricultural policy. 

Ohio Man Violates Employer’s Noncompete Agreement. 
Kevin Ciptak (“Ciptak”), an Ohio landscaping employee, is facing legal trouble for allegedly breaching his employment contract with Yagour Group LLC, operating as Perfection Landscapes (“Perfection”). The contract included a noncompete agreement, which Ciptak is accused of violating by running his own landscaping business on the side while working for Perfection. Perfection eventually discovered the extent of Ciptak’s side business, leading to Perfection filing a lawsuit.

During the trial, Ciptak testified that Perfection was “too busy” to take on the jobs he completed. Additionally, Ciptak stated that the profits from his side jobs amounted to over $60,000. Perfection countered that they would have been able to perform the work and, because of the obvious breach of the noncompete agreement, Perfection lost out on the potential profits. The trial court ruled in favor of Perfection, ordering Ciptak to pay the $60,000 in profits along with attorney's fees and expenses, exceeding $80,000. Ciptak appealed, arguing that, according to Ohio law, Perfection could only recover its own lost profits, not Ciptak's gains from the breach. He also claimed that Perfection was not harmed as they were "too busy," and Perfection failed to provide evidence of lost profits. 

The Eighth District Court of Appeals ultimately found in favor of Perfection.  The court reasoned that “[t]his case came down to a credibility determination.” The court held there was no dispute that Ciptak had violated the noncompete agreement. What was in dispute was whether Perfection could have and would have performed the work. The Eighth District held that the trial court’s finding that Perfection could have performed the work was not unreasonable. The Eighth District noted that although Ciptak claimed that Perfection was “too busy” to do any of those jobs, Ciptak “provided no other evidence to support this assertion.” The Eighth District ruled that the evidence presented at trial showed that Perfection would have realized approximately the same amount of profit on those jobs as Ciptak did and, therefore, Perfection was damaged as a result of Ciptak’s breach of the noncompete agreement. 

New Independent Contractor Rule Announced by Department of Labor. 
The U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) has published a final rule to help employers better understand when a worker qualifies as an employee and when they may be considered an independent contractor. The new rule gets rid of and replaces the 2021 rule. As announced by the DOL, the new rule “restores the multifactor analysis used by courts for decades, ensuring that all relevant factors are analyzed to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor.” Thus, the new rule returns to a “totality of the circumstances” approach and analyzes the following six factors: (1) any opportunity for profit or loss a worker might have; (2) the financial stake and nature of any resources a worker has invested in the work; (3) the degree of permanence of the work relationship; (4) the degree of control an employer has over the person’s work; (5) whether the work the person does is essential to the employer’s business; and (6) the worker’s skill and initiative. The new rule goes into effect on March 11, 2024. 

Federal Appeals Court Reverses Injunctions on Iowa “Ag-Gag Laws.” 
On January 8, 2024, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued two opinions reversing injunctions against two Iowa “ag-gag laws”. At trial, the two laws were found to have violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. In its first opinion, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals analyzed Iowa’s “Agricultural Production Facility Trespass” law which makes it illegal to use deceptive practices to obtain access or employment in an “agricultural production facility, with the intent to cause physical or economic harm or other injury to the agricultural production facility’s operations . . .” The Eighth Circuit found that the intent element contained within the Iowa law prevents it from violating the First Amendment. The court reasoned that the Iowa law “is not a viewpoint-based restriction on speech, but rather a permissible restriction on intentionally false speech undertaken to accomplish a legally cognizable harm.” 

In its second opinion, the Eighth Circuit reviewed an Iowa law that penalized anyone who “while trespassing, ‘knowingly places or uses a camera or electronic surveillance device that transmits or records images or data while the device is on the trespassed property[.]’” The court found that the Iowa law did not violate the First Amendment because “the [law’s] restrictions on the use of a camera only apply to situations when there has first been an unlawful trespass, the [law] does not burden substantially more speech than is necessary to further the State’s legitimate interests.”  The court noted that Iowa has a strong interest in protecting property rights by “penalizing that subset of trespassers who – by using a camera while trespassing – cause further injury to privacy and property rights.” 

Both cases have been remanded to the trial courts for further proceedings consistent with the forgoing opinions. 

USDA Announces New Remote Beef Grading Program.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) announced a new pilot program to “allow more cattle producers and meat processors to access better markets through the [USDA’s] official beef quality grading and certification.” The “Remote Grading Pilot for Beef” looks to expand on the USDA’s approach to increase competition in agricultural markets for small- and mid-size farmers and ranchers. The pilot program hopes to cut expenses that otherwise deter small, independent meat processors from having a highly trained USDA grader visit their facility. 

Under the pilot program, trained plant employees capture specific images of the live animal and the beef carcass. These images are then sent to a USDA grader that will inspect the images and accompanying plant records and product data, who then assigns the USDA Quality Grade and applicable carcass certification programs. The “Remote Grading Pilot for Beef” is only available to domestic beef slaughter facilities operating under federal inspection and producing product that meets USDA grading program eligibility criteria. More information can be found at https://www.ams.usda.gov/services/remote-beef-grading

USDA Accepting Applications for Value-Added Producer Grants Program. 
On January 17, 2024, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) announced that it is “accepting applications for grants to help agricultural producers maximize the value of their products and venture into new and better markets.” These grants are available through the Value-Added Producer Grants Program. Independent producers, agricultural producer groups, farmer or rancher cooperatives, and majority-controlled producer-based business ventures are all eligible for the grants. The USDA may award up to $75,000 for planning activities or up to $250,000 for working capital expenses related to producing and marketing a value-added agricultural product. For more information, visit the USDA’s website or contact your local USDA Rural Development office.

 

The United States Supreme Court building
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Friday, July 09th, 2021

Perhaps it’s an overused phrase but “sometimes you win, sometimes you lose” has relevance to agriculture lately.  It’s a fitting response to several new decisions from the federal courts.  Some of the decisions align with positions advocated by agricultural interests but others do not.  We wrote last week about a case in the “sometimes you lose” category--the Court’s ruling in favor of small refineries claiming exemptions from renewable fuels mandates.  Several members of Congress have already proposed legislation that would nullify the Court’s decision in that case.  A second loss came with a challenge to California’s animal welfare standards and a third with the court striking down a waiver of E15 ethanol blends.  The sole win came with a challenge to a California statute allowing union organizing activities on private property.  Here’s a summary.

California Proposition 12 – North American Meat Institute v. Bonta

The U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would not grant certiorari and review a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ on California Proposition 12.  Voters approved Proposition 12, the “Prevention of Cruelty to Farm Animals Act,” in 2018.  The Act establishes housing standards for egg-laying hens, breeding hogs and veal calves and prohibits the confinement of animals in spaces that don’t meet the standards.  Business owners and operators in California may not sell meat or egg products from animals that are not confined according to the standards.  Standards for calves (43 square feet) and egg laying hens (1 square foot) became effective in 2020 while standards for breeding pigs and their offspring (24 square feet) and cage-free provisions for egg laying hens are to be effective beginning January 1, 2022.

The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) sought a preliminary injunction against Proposition 12 in 2019, arguing that it violates the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which grants only Congress the authority to regulate commerce among the states.  NAMI claimed that the Act establishes a “protectionist trade barrier” that would protect California producers from out-of-state competition and control conduct outside of its state borders. 

Both the federal District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with NAMI.   The appellate court affirmed the District Court’s conclusions that Proposition 12 is not discriminatory on its face and does not have a discriminatory purpose or effect, as there was no evidence that the state had a protectionist intent and the Act treats in-state and out-of-state producers the same.  Nor does the Act try to directly regulate out-of-state conduct or impose burdens on out-of-state producers, but instead only precludes sale of meats resulting from certain practices, the courts concluded.  The federal government and 20 states joined NAMI in a request for a rehearing of the case by the full panel of judges on the Ninth Circuit but were unsuccessful.

NAMI turned to the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking a review of the case on the basis that the Ninth Circuit’s decision conflicts with holdings by other appellate courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court denied the request for review on June 28, offering no explanation for its decision.  The legal challenges to Proposition 12 do not end with that denial, however.  A separate case filed by the National Pork Producers Association and American Farm Bureau Federation is pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  It also argues that Proposition 12 negatively impacts interstate commerce and will increase consumer costs for pork and that the federal district court judge who dismissed the case failed to examine the practical effects the law would have on producers.  The Ninth Circuit heard the appeal in April, so we may see a decision in the next few months.

E15 waiver:  American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers v. EPA

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held in favor of a claim by the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) challenging a Trump Administration rule in 2019 that waived restrictions on summer sales of E15 due to higher fuel volatility in summer temperatures.  The decision could mean that current sales of E15 must end unless further legal challenges follow.

The 2019 Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) waiver for E15 allowed fuel stations to sell 15% ethanol blends during the summer months rather than limiting those sales to 10% ethanol, a move that would increase ethanol sales.   As expected, the oil and gas refining industry responded to the waiver issuance with a legal challenge, arguing that the administration lacked the authority to grant the RVP waiver for fuels over 10% ethanol. 

The volatility waiver authority derives from the Clean Air Act, which establishes when the EPA may alter volatility limits through the waiver process and specifically allows the EPA to grant an ethanol waiver for “fuel blends containing gasoline and 10 percent denatured anhydrous ethanol” in Section 745(h)(4).  The EPA relied upon the ethanol waiver language in the Clean Air Act back in 1992 to waive volatility standards for E10.  But whether the EPA could use the Clean Air Act language to issue a waiver for ethanol beyond 10 percent is the question at the heart of the dispute.  The EPA and intervenors in the case representing biofuel interests claimed the language was ambiguous enough to allow the EPA to grant waivers for fuel with 10% ethanol or more.

In a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeals concluded that “the text, structure, and legislative history” of the Clean Air Act do not allow EPA to extend a waiver to E15.  The court found the statutory language straightforward, lacking any modifiers that would establish a range of ethanol blends rather than the 10 percent stated in the statute.  Legislative actions at the time also supported an interpretation that the 10 percent language addressed E10 and not ethanol blends in excess of 10 percent. 

The next critical question for this case is what the Biden Administration EPA will do with case and the E15 waiver.  A request for further review of the D.C. Circuit’s opinion is possible.  Or perhaps the EPA will pursue a legislative fix that increases the statutory reference from 10 percent to 15 percent ethanol.  And it’s always possible that no further action will occur and E15 summer sales will no longer be an option.

Union organizer access as a taking – Cedar Point Nursery v Hassid

In the “win” column for agricultural employers is a case that asks whether a state regulation granting access to private property for union activities is a “taking” of property under the Constitution.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s answer to the question is “yes,” although three of the Justices dissented from the majority opinion. 

A regulation formed under the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 gives labor organizations a “right to take access” to an agricultural employer’s property “for the purpose of meeting and talking with employees and soliciting their support.”  The regulation requires agricultural employers to allow union organizers to be on the property up to three hours per day and four 30-day periods per year but cannot be “disruptive” and must provide written notice to employers.   An employer who interferes with the organizers can be subject to sanctions. 

After representatives from United Farm Workers accessed Cedar Point Nursery and engaged in disruptive conduct and sought to access Fowler Packing Company, both occasions without notice to the employers, the companies filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction from the federal District Court.  They argued that the regulation was a physical taking of their properties because it granted an easement to the union organizers, which required compensation under the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments of U.S. Constitution.

The District Court did not grant the injunction and held that the regulation is not a physical taking because it doesn’t allow the public a permanent and continuous right of access to the property for any reason.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision, agreeing that it wasn’t a physical taking, but a strong dissent argued that the union activities were a physical occupation and taking of property.  The agricultural companies sought but were denied a hearing before all of the Ninth Circuit judges, leading to a request for review granted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The majority of the Justices concluded that the California regulation is a physical taking because it grants union organizers a right to invade an agricultural employer’s property.  Particularly important to the majority was the regulation’s removal of an owner’s right to exclude people from their private property, which is a “fundamental element” of property rights according to the Court.  The Court rejected the argument that the access must be continuous and permanent to be a physical taking and dispensed with claims that the holding could endanger regulations that allow government entries onto private land.  The Court’s holding was clear:  the access regulation amounts to simple appropriation of private property.

Read the court opinions in these three cases here:

Ninth Circuit’s Opinion North American Meat Institute v. Becerra/Bonta

American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers v. EPA

Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid

By: Ellen Essman, Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019

Written by: Ellen Essman and Peggy Hall

October is almost over, and while farmers have thankfully been busy with harvest, we’ve been busy harvesting the world of ag law.  From meat labeling to RFS rules to backyard chickens and H-2A labor certification, here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news you may want to know:

Federal judge upholds Missouri’s meat labeling law—for now.  Missouri passed a law in 2018, which among other things, prohibited representing a product as “meat” if it is not derived from livestock or poultry.  As you can imagine, with the recent popularity of plant-based meat products, this law is controversial, and eventually led to a lawsuit.  However, U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. decided not issue a preliminary injunction that would stop the Missouri Department of Agriculture from carrying out the labeling law.  He reasoned that since companies like Tofurky, who brought the suit, label their products as plant-based or lab-grown, the law does not harm them.  In other words, since Tofurky and other companies are not violating the law, it doesn’t make sense to stop enforcement on their account. Tofurky, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the good Food Institute have appealed Judge Gaitan’s decision, asserting that Missouri’s law infringes upon their right to free speech.  This means that the Missouri law can be enforced at the moment, but the decision is not final, as more litigation is yet to come.  

Oregon goes for cage-free egg law.   In August, Oregon passed a new law that would require egg-laying chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, or guinea fowl to be kept in a “cage-free housing system.” This law will apply to all commercial farms with more than 3,000 laying hens.  A cage-free housing system must have both indoor and outdoor areas, allow the hens to roam unrestricted, and must have enrichments such as scratch areas, perches, nest boxes and dust bathing areas.  As of January 1, 2024, all eggs sold in the state of Oregon will have to follow these requirements for hens.  The law does allow hens to be confined in certain situations, like for veterinary purposes or when they are part of a state or county fair exhibition. 

City can ban backyard chickens, says court.   The Court of Appeals for Ohio’s Seventh District upheld the city of Columbiana’s ordinances, which ban keeping chickens in a residential district, finding that they were both applicable to the appellant and constitutional. In this case, the appellant was a landowner in Columbiana who lived in an area zoned residential and kept hens in a chicken coop on his property.  The appellant was eventually informed that keeping his hens was in violation of the city code.  A lawsuit resulted when the landowner would not remove his chickens, and the trial court found for the city. The landowner appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that he did not violate the city ordinances as they were written, and that the city applied the ordinances in an arbitrary and unreasonable way because his chickens did not constitute a nuisance. Although keeping chickens is not explicitly outlawed in Columbiana, the Court of Appeals for Ohio’s Seventh District found that reading the city’s zoning ordinances all together, the “prohibition on agricultural uses within residential districts can be inferred.”  Furthermore, the court pointed out that the city’s code did not ban chickens in the whole city, but instead limited them to agricultural districts, and that the prohibition in residential areas was meant to ensure public health.  For these reasons, the court found that the ordinances were not arbitrarily and unreasonably applied to the appellant, and as a result, the ordinances are constitutional.  To read the decision in its entirety, click here. 

EPA proposes controversial Renewable Fuel Standard rule.   On October 15, EPA released a notice of proposed rulemaking, asking for more public comment on the proposed volumes of biofuels to be required under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program in 2020.  The RFS program “requires a certain volume of renewable fuel to replace the quantity of petroleum-based transportation fuel” and other fuels.  Renewable fuels include biofuels made from crops like corn, soybeans, and sugarcane.  In recent years, the demand for biofuels has dropped as the Trump administration waived required volumes for certain oil refiners.  The administration promised a fix to this in early October, but many agricultural and biofuels groups feel that EPA’s October 15 proposed rule told a different story. Many of these groups are upset by the proposed blending rules, claiming that way the EPA proposes calculate the biofuel volumes would cause the volumes to fall far below what the groups were originally promised by the administration. This ultimately means the demand for biofuels would be less.  On the other hand, the EPA claims that biofuels groups are misreading the rule, and that the calculation will in fact keep biofuel volumes at the level the administration originally promised. The EPA plans to hold a public hearing on October 30, followed by a comment period that ends November 29, 2019.  Hopefully the hearing and comments will help to sort out the disagreement. More information is available here, and a preliminary version of the rule is available here.

New H-2A labor certification rule is in effect.    The U.S. Department of Labor has finalized one of many proposed changes to the H-2A temporary agricultural labor rules.  A new rule addressing labor certification for H-2A became effective on October 21, 2019.  The new rule aims to modernize the labor market test for H-2A labor certification, which determines whether qualified American workers are available to fill temporary agricultural positions and if not, allows an employer to seek temporary migrant workers.   An employer may advertise their H-2A job opportunities on a new version of the Department’s website, SeasonalJobs.dol.gov, now mobile-friendly, centralized and linked to third-party job-search websites.  State Workforce Agencies will also promote awareness of H-2A jobs.  Employers will no longer have to advertise a job in a print newspaper of general circulation in the area of intended employment. For the final rule, visit this link.

And more rules:  National Organic Program rule proposals.  The USDA has also made two proposals regarding organic production rules.  First is a proposed rule to amend the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances for organic crops and handling.  The rule would allow blood meal made with sodium citrate to be used as a soil amendment, prohibit the use of natamycin in organic crops, and allow tamarind seed gum to be used as a non-organic ingredient in organic handling if an organic form is not commercially available.  That comment period closes on December 17, 2019.  Also up for consideration is USDA’s request to extend the National Organic Program’s information collection reporting and recordkeeping requirements, which are due to expire on January 31, 2020.  The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service specifically invites comments by December 16, 2019 on:  (1) whether the proposed collection of information is necessary for the proper performance of the functions of the agency, including whether the information will have practical utility; (2) the accuracy of the agency's estimate of the burden of the proposed collection of information including the validity of the methodology and assumptions used; (3) ways to enhance the quality, utility, and clarity of the information to be collected; and (4) ways to minimize the burden of the collection of information on those who are to respond, including the use of appropriate automated, electronic, mechanical, or other technological collection techniques or other forms of information technology.

Great Lakes restoration gets a boost from EPA.  On October 22, 2019, the EPA announced a new action plan under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).  The plan will be carried out by federal agencies and their partners through fiscal year 2024.  Past GLRI action plans have removed environmental impairments on the lakes and prevented one million pounds of phosphorus from finding its way into the lakes.  The plans are carried out by awarding federal grant money to state and local groups throughout the Great Lakes, who use the money to carry out lake and habitat restoration projects.  Overall, the new plan’s goals are to remove toxic substances from the lakes, improve and delist Areas of Concern in the lakes, control invasive species and prevent new invasive species from entering the lakes, reduce nutrients running off from agriculture and stormwater, protect and restore habitats, and to provide education about the Great Lakes ecosystem.  You can read EPA’s news release on the new plan here, and see the actual plan here. We plan to take a closer look at the plan and determine what it means for Ohio agriculture, so watch for future updates!

 

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