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Appeals court revives forced labor case against Idaho dairy

Four dairy workers standing in the mud are shown from the legs down with rubber boots.
Matt Guilhem
/
Boise State Public Radio

A lawsuit against an Idaho dairy farm over alleged violations of forced labor laws can continue, an appeals court ruled this week.

The case was filed by six Mexican animal scientists in 2017 who say they were hired to work as veterinarians at Funk Dairy in Murtaugh, Idaho, through a professional-level visa program. But instead, they were made to milk cows and clean up manure.

They claim the farm threatened deportation if they didn’t comply with their assigned tasks and that they received little time off, substandard housing and inadequate medical care.

The veterinarians' lawyers said this “bait-and-switch” violated forced labor laws, but in 2019, Idaho District Court Judge David Nye dismissed the case, saying the evidence didn’t rise to that level.

This week, a panel of judges on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision because they said a jury could reasonably conclude that Funk Dairy knowingly used the visa process to entice the veterinarians to move from Mexico to Idaho as “animal scientists” through TN Visas, only to assign them general labor tasks, which differed drastically from their expectations.

“This case is an important interpretation of the federal forced labor statute, and will hopefully encourage other workers to come forward, now knowing that the courts are going to be interpreting the law in their favor,” said Edgar Aguilasocho, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Court documents say Curtis Giles, who manages operations at Funk Dairy and is named in the lawsuit, told several of the veterinarians that they’d be deported under certain circumstances, including if they discussed pay and when one of them complained about not doing veterinary-related job duties.

The appeals court said it’s reasonable to infer that the deportation threats pressured the veterinarians into complying with milking the cows and other menial tasks.

A call to Funk Dairy Wednesday was referred to the defendants' lawyer, David Claiborne of Sawtooth Law Offices. Claiborne did not return a request for comment by a deadline Wednesday.

Aguilasocho said the case is procedurally set to return to the district court for a jury trial.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio

As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.