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2 Recent Decisions Discuss the Applicability of the Secondary Agricultural Exemption

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Andrew Frisch

The so-called “secondary” agricultural exemption, is one of the lesser known and litigated exemptions. Two recent cases shed light on how far the exemption actually reaches. Discussing the exemption, 2 courts reached different conclusions regarding whether the employees at issue were in fact exempt as secondary agricultural employees. In the first case, the Eleventh Circuit held that employees of an agricultural business, who were employed in Home Depot retail store locations, solely to care for their employer’s plants prior to sale to third parties, were subject to the exemption. In the second case, a district court in the Eastern District of California held that a truck driver who occasionally transported feed for the dairy cows to his employer’s dairy ranch was not exempt under the agricultural exemption, and held that the transport of milk that had been ultra filtrated might not qualify as “agricultural” work. Notably, each decision turned on a different element of the exemptions requirements as discussed below.

Rodriguez v. Pure Beauty Farms, Inc.

In the first case, the Eleventh Circuit held that employees who worked for their employer, a commercial nursery, and maintained their employer’s plants at Home Depot locations, for ultimate sale to third-party customers were subject to the secondary agricultural exemption. The court reasoned that the plaintiffs’ work caring for plants displayed in stores was incident to or in conjunction with nursery farming operations, and so qualified for secondary agricultural exemption. In so holding, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ contention that the employees were engaged in separate business enterprise of selling plants, since they handled only their employers’ plants, albeit in Home Depot locations, and held that the Home Depots where they performed their work qualified as “farms” within the meaning of the regulation.

Initially the court laid out the three prerequisites for application of the secondary agricultural exemption: (1) the “practice must be performed either by a farmer or on a farm”; (2) it must “be performed either in connection with the farmer’s own farming operations or in connection with farming operations conducted on the farm where the practice is performed”; and (3) it must be “performed ‘as an incident to or in conjunction with’ the farming operations.” 29 C.F.R. § 780.129; see also Sariol, 490 F.3d at 1279–80.

The court quickly disposed of the first two elements, finding that they clearly applied. Turning to the third element, the court held that the work performed by the employees was indeed incident to or in conjunction with the defendant’s farming operations, reasoning:

The parties’ dispute focuses primarily on the third requirement—whether the practices Rodriguez and Hernandez performed for the Farms, but on Home Depot store-sites, were “incident to or in conjunction with” the Farms’ farming operations. See 29 C.F .R. § 780.129. “Generally, a practice performed in connection with farming operations is within the statutory language only if it constitutes an established part of agriculture, is subordinate to the farming operations involved, and does not amount to an independent business.” 29 C.F.R. § 780.144. When, as here, the practice is performed on “agricultural or horticultural commodities,” to determine whether “the practice is conducted as a separate business activity rather than as a part of agriculture,” consideration is given to, among other things: (1) whether “the type of product resulting from the practice” remains in its raw or natural state or changes; (2) “the value added to the product as a result of the practice and whether a sales organization is maintained for the disposal of the product”; and (3) whether the product is “sold under the producer’s own label rather than under that of the purchaser.” 29 C.F.R. § 780.147. A farmer or his employees selling the farmer’s own agricultural commodities is also a practice “incident to or in conjunction with the farming operations” as long as “it does not amount to a separate business.” 29 C.F.R. § 780.158(a).

In addition, the Department of Labor has specific regulations addressing employees of nurseries. If nursery employees are engaged in “[p]lanting, cultivating, watering, spraying, fertilizing, pruning, bracing, and feeding the growing crop,” they are employed in agriculture. 29 C.F.R. § 780.205. “Employees of a grower of nursery stock who work in packing and storage sheds sorting the stock, grading and trimming it, racking it in bins, and packing it for shipment are employed in ‘agriculture’ provided they handle only products grown by their employer and their activities constitute an established part of their employer’s agricultural activities and are subordinate to his farming operations.” 29 C.F.R. § 780.209 (emphasis added). However, if the “grower of nursery stock operates, as a separate enterprise, a processing establishment or an establishment for the wholesale of retail distribution of such commodities, the employees in such separate enterprise are not engaged in agriculture.” Id. (citations omitted). “Although the handling and the sale of nursery commodities by the grower at or near the place where they were grown may be incidental to his farming operations, the character of these operations changes when they are performed in an establishment set up as a marketing point to aid the distribution of those products.” Id.

After briefly discussing similar cases, the court explained:

Here, the Farms handles and sells only its own plants, and Rodriguez and Hernandez watered, pruned, and cared for only the Farms’ plants situated at the Home Depot stores. Unlike the employees in Mitchell, Rodriguez and Hernandez did not work in a wholesale distribution center for other growers’ horticultural products. Cf. Mitchell, 267 F.2d at 290–91; see also Adkins v. Mid–American Growers, Inc., 167 F.3d 355, 357 (7th Cir.1999) (explaining that when an employer “buys plants and then resells them without doing significant agricultural work it is operating as a wholesaler rather than as a grower, and wholesalers of agricultural commodities are not exempt from the Act”); Wirtz v. Jackson & Perkins Co., 312 F.2d 48, 51 (2d Cir.1963) (stating that “[w]ere any significant portion of the stock handled in defendant’s storages purchased from … independent sources” the agricultural exemption would not apply because it “is inapplicable to services performed by employees of mere distributors of agricultural products”). Rodriguez and Hernandez are more akin to the flower shop employees in Walling, who handled and sold only their employer’s own nursery stock. See Walling, 132 F.2d at 6.

In any event, the kind of work Rodriguez and Hernandez performed on the Farms’ plants is explicitly identified in the regulations as “agricultural,” such as watering them, pruning away dead limbs, leaves and buds and preparing them for market by handling, inspecting and sorting them. See 29 C.F.R. § 780.205. Nothing Rodriguez and Hernandez did to the plants changed them from their natural state, such that they could be said to be engaged in the separate enterprise of processing or manufacturing. Cf. Mitchell v. Budd, 350 U.S. 473, 480–82, 76 S.Ct. 527, 532, 100 L.Ed. 565 (1956) (concluding that workers at tobacco-bulking plant, where a lengthy fermentation process substantially changed the tobacco’s physical properties and chemical content, were not exempt as agricultural workers). Indeed, by ensuring that the Farms’ plants continued to receive adequate water and light and were pruned and insect-free while in the staging areas, Rodriguez and Hernandez’s work was directly connected with and subordinate to the Farms’ own nursery-farming operations.

Click Rodriguez v. Pure Beauty Farms, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

Williams v. Hilarides

In the second case, there were three issues regarding the application of the agricultural exemption before the court: (1) whether the fact that Plaintiff occasionally transported feed for the dairy cows to Defendant’s dairy ranch has any effect on the court’s determination of Plaintiff’s exempt status; (2) whether Plaintiff’s usual activity of hauling milk from the farm constituted agricultural work within the meaning of the exemption; and (3) whether application of the agricultural exemption is appropriate where the product shipped by Defendant to the cheese plant was a product which Plaintiff characterizes as being manufactured from raw milk by a process of ultrafiltration which removes significant amounts of water.

The court quickly disposed of the first issue, noting that the amount of time that an employee spends on so-called “agricultural” activities each week is determinative of whether the exemption applies (week-to-week):

The first issue—whether the fact that Plaintiff occasionally hauled feed for the dairy cows to Defendant’s farm—requires little discussion. Put simply, exemption from overtime pay entitlement under FLSA is an all-or-nothing proposition. If any portion of the employee’s workweek is spent in work that is not agricultural and therefore not exempt, no exemption may be claimed by the same employer for any amount of work that is agricultural under FLSA. Wyatt v. Holtville Alfalfa Mills, Inc., 106 F.Supp. 624, 629 (S.D.Cal.1952). In other words, an employee’s hours worked in a given workweek are not exempt under the agriculture exemption unless all the work performed that week was exempt agricultural work. Thus, it is of no import to the court’s determination of Plaintiff’s overtime exemption status that Plaintiff may have spent some small amount of time hauling hay for feed for the cattle if it is determined that Plaintiff’s trips to the Hilmar Cheese Plant are determined to be not agricultural in nature.

Discussing the second issue, the court analyzed the CFR regulations and case law pertaining to employees engaged in hauling agricultural goods and concluded that the hauling of such goods necessarily constitutes secondary agricultural work falling within the scope of the exemption.

Turning to the final issue, whether the transport of the raw milk that had been subject the ultra filtration process constituted agricultural work, the court held that issues of fact precluded a finding of same:

Plaintiff’s opposition to Defendant’s motion for summary adjudication raises the issue of whether the product that Plaintiff transported from Defendant’s farm to the cheese plant was a “dairy product” or was an industrial product such that the agriculture exemption was inapplicable. Defendant’s reply to Plaintiff’s contention is essentially limited to the claim that the product hauled by Plaintiff to the cheese plant was milk destined to be made into cheese and the fact that it was treated by ultrafiltration is of no consequence. Plaintiff cites two cases, Mitchell v. Budd, 350 U.S. 473, 76 S.Ct. 527, 100 L.Ed. 565 (1956) and N.L.R.B. v. Tepper, 297 F.2d 280 (1961), to support the contention that the hauling of a dairy product that is the result of the application of a process that removes the dairy product from its raw, natural state does not constitute employment in agriculture for purposes of the FLSA. As the court previously noted, at the time these cases were decided, the overtime provisions of section 7 of the FLSA contained a subsection that exempted those employed in agriculture from overtime but providing that the exemption applied only to activities carried out with respect to commodities in their “raw or natural state.” 29 U.S.C. §§ 207(c), (d) (repealed 1972); Hodgson v. Twin City Foods, Inc., 464 F.2d 246, 250 n. 3 (9th Cir.1972).

Finding no specific regulation directly on point, as to whether the milk that had undergone the ultra filtration was still milk in its “raw” state, the court denied defendant’s motion, noting it had failed to carry its burden of proof on the issue:

As noted above, Defendant has the burden to show that there is no issue of material fact as to whether Plaintiff is exempt from the overtime provisions of 29 U.S.C. § 207(b). Where Defendant fails to carry his burden is in the failure to show the process of transforming milk into the ultrafiltered product that Plaintiff transported to the cheese factory is, in fact, an agricultural, as opposed to manufacturing, function. If the court has no basis upon which it can conclude that the product Plaintiff was hauling to the cheese plant was a “dairy product” (as opposed to a manufactured product), the court cannot conclude that Defendant was engaged in “agriculture” when he shipped his product to the cheese plant or that Plaintiff was correspondingly carrying out an agricultural function. Defendant’s motion for summary adjudication must therefore fail. There is no question that reasonable minds could differ as to both sub-parts (B) and (C) of this opinion. However, the court finds that the application of guidelines established by Congress clearly prevent Defendant from meeting the high burden of production of proof that would allow the court to grant summary adjudication.

Click Williams v. Hilarides to read the entire Memorandum Opinion and Order on Defendant’s Motion for Summary Adjudication.

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