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Connecticut Court Agrees to Enforce Default Labor Rights For Tobacco Farmworkers Judgment From Puerto Rico

 

As Illinois wage and hour rights attorneys, we were interested in a decision establishing the scope of state courts’ right to enforce judgments obtained in other states under the Constitution’s “full faith and credit” clause. Nazario et al. v. O.J. Thrall Inc., et al., 1996 WL 285541 (Conn.Super. 1996) allowed Puerto Rican farmworkers to enforce their default judgment against a Connecticut farm operator. The Connecticut Superior court found that because the farm operator used Puerto Rican logistic, recruitment and screening services, it had enough “minimum contact” with the territory for the Puerto Rico court to establish personal jurisdiction.

Defendant O.J. Thrall, Inc. grows tobacco in Connecticut. It recruited 51 Puerto Rican workers for its growing season through an interstate clearance system created by the federal Wagner-Peyser Act. That law also regulates working conditions and pay for domestic farmworkers, including the Puerto Rican farmworkers. The workers were in Connecticut between June 12, 1991 and July 19, 1991, when they were discharged. Upon their return, they sued Thrall in Puerto Rico Superior Court for breach of contract and the federal clearance order. That court determined that it had personal jurisdiction in the case because Thrall had done business in Puerto Rico through the Wagner-Peyser job clearance system. Thrall was properly served, but the case ended in a default judgment. The workers were awarded $2,084 each in unpaid wages and $190 each in air travel expenses, plus attorney fees.

The workers then sought to enforce their judgment in Connecticut, where Thrall had its operations. Thrall fought that action, arguing that it didn’t have sufficient minimum contacts with Puerto Rico to establish personal jurisdiction. The Connecticut Superior Court started by noting that this was an issue of first impression in the state, as the only previous Wagner-Peyser Act case had to do with subject matter jurisdiction. The Constitution requires state courts to give one another’s decisions “full faith and credit,” it noted, but also limits their personal jurisdiction over nonresidents through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

It first took up Thrall’s argument that the clearance orders it extended under Wagner-Peyser were not offers of employment, as required to establish “minimum contacts” with Puerto Rico. The Connecticut court rejected that argument. Of the 12 cases it found in the United States and Puerto Rico that discussed whether a clearance order is an offer of employment or a contract, only two declined to make such a finding. One declined to make any finding on the subject, while another found that another contract was the controlling contract. Furthermore, the court wrote, the clearance order specifically said it “describes the actual terms and conditions of the employment being offered by me and contains all the material terms and conditions of the job,” followed by the signature of Thrall’s Vice President. For those reasons, the court found that the clearance order was a unilateral contract containing an offer of employment.

The court next addressed Thrall’s argument that the local Department of Labor office in Yauco, Puerto Rico, which recruited the workers, was not Thrall’s agent and had no authority from the company. Under Connecticut caselaw, the court said, it must review whether the Wagner-Peyser Act creates an agency relationship between firms and the federal Department of Labor. This Depression-era law allowed the federal government to establish employment offices giving preference to U.S. and Puerto Rico workers over foreign workers. When hiring the workers, the court wrote, Thrall delegated its hiring authority to the Yauco office, specifically referring workers to that office rather than merely using it as a referral source. This established an agency relationship between the Yauco DOL and Thrall, the court wrote. However, the office was not under Thrall’s control, the court said, citing caselaw from around the U.S. Thus, the agency relationship was implied, not stautory. However, this was still sufficient to establish jurisdiction.

Finally, the court addressed Thrall’s argument that it had transacted no business in Puerto Rico, aside from the clearance order it was required by law to file in order to use the foreign worker program. In support, it cited a dissent from a New York case with similar facts, Rios v. Altamont Farms, Inc., 100 A.D.2d 405, 475 N.Y.S.2d 520 (N.Y.A.D.1984), which allowed Puerto Rico courts personal jurisdiction over a New York apple grower. In that case, the court wrote, the facts satisfied both parts of the two-part test laid down by the Supreme Court in International Shoe Co. v. State of Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 66 S.Ct. 154, 90 L.Ed. 95 (1945). The defendants used Puerto Rico services with certain awareness that their job offers would be extended in the territory, satisfying the “minimum contact” requirement. Jurisdiction was fair because a hearing in Puerto Rico imposed less burden on the defendant than a mainland hearing would impose on plaintiffs, whom the government has an interest in protecting. All of these considerations applied to the instant case as well, the court said. Thus, the judgment may be enforced against Thrall in Connecticut.


Based in Illinois, DiTommaso Lubin Austermuehle represents clients from around the United States who have been unfairly denied wages they have legally earned. Like the Connecticut court, our Chicago overtime violation lawyers understand that the power balance between employers and employees is not equal and can sometimes be abused. Despite state and federal laws intended to protect workers, this often includes an employer’s refusal to pay workers for all of the time they worked, or pay overtime for time worked over 40 hours a week or eight hours a day. When workers speak up, they may be illegally fired or penalized on the job. Our Aurora, Ill. wage and hour rights lawyers help workers sue employers and former employers for all of the wages they were not paid, as well as damages for other illegal actions.

If you believe you’re a victim of “wage theft” and you’re ready to fight back, you should call DiTommaso Lubin Austermuehle. To learn more at a free consultation, call us toll-free at 1-877-990-4990 or contact us through the Internet.