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Martinez-Gonzalez v. Elkhorn Packing Co., LLC

United States District Court, N.D. California

October 29, 2019

ELKHORN PACKING CO., LLC, et al., Defendants.




         Plaintiff Dario Martinez Gonzalez worked for Defendants Elkhorn Packing Co. LLC and D'Arrigo Bros. Co. during the 2016 and 2017 lettuce seasons. He worked for Defendants as an agricultural laborer, and, in this lawsuit, he alleges that the companies failed to pay him appropriately, failed to provide adequate meal or rest breaks, and breached the duty of care they owed to Plaintiff by providing food that was unsafe to eat. In December 2018, Defendants moved to compel arbitration. See Docket No. 24. In arguing that the parties' Arbitration Agreement should not be enforced, Plaintiff raised the defenses of economic duress and undue influence. See Docket No. 28. On October 15 and 16, 2019, a bench trial was held to determine the enforceability of the Arbitration Agreement.


         A. The Parties

         1. Plaintiff Dario Martinez Gonzalez is a Spanish-speaking Mexican national who-in 2016 and 2017-worked as an H-2A agricultural laborer for Elkhorn Packing Co. LLC (“Elkhorn”) in California. He brings this suit alleging that Elkhorn failed to pay Plaintiff required minimum wages and overtime pay, failed to provide meal and rest periods, breached a duty of care owed to Plaintiff, and breached their employment contract. See First Amended Complaint, Docket No. 13.

         2. Defendants are Elkhorn Packing Co., LLC, and D'Arrigo Bros. Co. (“D'Arrigo”), of California. Elkhorn is a farm labor contractor located in Salinas, CA. D'Arrigo is a California agricultural grower that utilizes Elkhorn as a labor contractor. Id. at 2-3.

         3. Several individuals testified at the trial:

a. Dario Martinez Gonzalez - see ¶ 1. He was called as one of Plaintiff's witnesses.
b. Jose Juan Plascencia Macias - is a Spanish-speaking Mexican national who worked for Elkhorn in 2016. He is acquainted with Mr. Martinez Gonzalez because they were on the same work crew for Elkhorn in 2016. He worked for Elkhorn in both 2016 and 2017. He was called as one of Plaintiff's witnesses.
c. Selina Arreola - is employed by Elkhorn. Her current job title is manager, and she has been with the company for eleven years. She does not attend new-hire orientations, but she works with several of the Elkhorn employees who facilitate such events. She was called as one of Defendants' witnesses.
d. Octavio Vidales - is currently employed by Elkhorn and has worked for the company for approximately eleven years. He was a foreman and later a supervisor, and for the last several years he has trained workers on company policies and regulations and conducted new-hire orientations. He speaks Spanish. He was called as one of Defendants' witnesses.
e. Carlos Garcia Gutierrez - worked at Elkhorn from 2007 to 2017. During that time, he was a foreman who occasionally attended and assisted with new-hire orientations. He estimated that he had attended more than 100 orientations for new employees, but only two orientations specifically for H-2A workers. He speaks Spanish. He was called as one of Defendants' witnesses.
f. Crispin Bermudez - currently works at Elkhorn and has been with the company for twenty years. He has had the role of harvest manager for fifteen years. He helps to recruit workers in Mexico and to oversee crews in the United States. He speaks Spanish. He was called as one of Defendants' witnesses.

         B. Stipulated Facts

         4. The parties stipulated to the following facts:

a. Plaintiff worked for defendant Elkhorn Packing Co. in 2016 and 2017.
b. Plaintiff was authorized to work in the United States.
c. Plaintiff was an H-2A employee during both times he worked for Elkhorn.
d. Plaintiff was presented with an Arbitration Agreement in 2016 and 2017.
e. The Arbitration Agreement was presented in Spanish.
f. Plaintiff signed the Arbitration Agreements in 2016 and 2017.
g. Plaintiff was not provided with a copy of the Arbitration Agreement to keep.
h. No employee refused to sign the Arbitration Agreement or otherwise opted out of it in 2016 or 2017. i. Plaintiff was not expressly told that he could not work for Elkhorn if did he not sign the Arbitration Agreement.

         C. Credibility Findings

         5. The Court considered the demeanor and credibility of the witnesses throughout the trial, comparing their testimony to the available evidence, the testimony of other witnesses, and the arguments and briefing provided by counsel. Where the Court has resolved conflicts in testimony, it has place weight on its assessment of the witnesses' demeanor as well as the quality of their testimony and the existence of corroborating or contradictory evidence. Although more specific observations are made below, the Court notes that on certain key matters in dispute described herein, the testimony of Plaintiff's witnesses was more credible than the testimony of Defendants' witnesses. Defendants' witnesses were inconsistent with each other and with the record, and in several instances offered answers that strained credulity.

         D. Recruitment and Hiring of Elkhorn Employees in Mexico

         6. Plaintiff worked for Defendant Elkhorn in 2016 and 2017.

         7. In 2016 and 2017, when Plaintiff was not in the United States, he lived in Mexicali, Mexico.

         While in Mexico, Plaintiff worked agricultural jobs, earning significantly less money than was possible for him to earn in the United States. Testimony from Plaintiff's witnesses indicated that it was possible to earn five times as much in the United States as in Mexico. Plaintiff's testimony revealed that he had worked agricultural jobs in Mexico since age six; there was no evidence that he had ever had a different vocation. He attended school through the secondary school level, which was explained as the equivalent of elementary school plus three additional years. He did not learn English, but he can read and write in Spanish.

         8. In 2016 and 2017, Plaintiff was responsible for financially supporting his wife, his mother, his step-father (who is now deceased) and his mother-in-law, who suffers from diabetes. His family's expenses included rent, bills (for water and electricity), taxes on their land, and medical expenses for various members of his family.

         9. Plaintiff first learned about Elkhorn in 2015 and heard that they were hiring people to work in the United States legally. The process of applying to work for Elkhorn involved getting on an applicant list, completing an application, having one's application accepted, and then applying for a visa to enter the United States.

         10. Elkhorn first accepted Plaintiff's application in Mexico in 2016. After accepting his application, Elkhorn assisted Mr. Martinez Gonzalez in obtaining a visa to enter the United States. However, the only paperwork that Plaintiff completed with or for Elkhorn while he was in Mexico (in either year) was paperwork associated with obtaining the appropriate visa and entering the United States. Mr. Martinez Gonzalez was not presented with any other ...

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