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Siquic v. Star Forestry, LLC

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Charlottesville Division

March 17, 2016

CARLOS HUMBERTO CAB SIQUIC, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
STAR FORESTRY, LLC, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

HON. GLEN E. CONRAD CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Plaintiffs Carlos Humberto Cab Siquic and Santiago Yaxcal Cuz filed this action on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated against defendants Star Forestry, LLC, Independent Labor Services, LLC, White Pine Reforestation, LLC, Amy Spears-Thomas, and Devin Spears-Thomas for violations of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act ("AWPA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1801 et seq, and the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. This matter is currently before the court on plaintiffs' motion for default judgment. Defendants are currently in default and have not responded to plaintiffs' motion. For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be granted.

Background

Since defendants are in default, the facts underlying this litigation are uncontested. The two plaintiffs named in the complaint are indigent migrant workers who were employed by defendants Star Forestry, LLC, Independent Labor Services, LLC, White Pine Reforestation, LLC, Amy Spears-Thomas, and Devin Spears-Thomas at various times during the period of October 21, 2008 through the filing of the complaint.[1] Defendants operated tree-planting services in which they bid on and negotiated contracts to plant trees on land owned by other individuals and companies. Devin Spears-Thomas had an ownership interest in all three defendant companies and Amy Spears-Thomas had an ownership interest in Independent Labor Services, LLC and Star Forestry, LLC. In order to fulfill the manpower requirements under these contracts, defendants sought foreign nationals to perform forestry work on a seasonal or temporary basis. In order to work in the United States, plaintiffs obtained temporary visas, also known as "H-2B" visas. Subsequently, plaintiffs were admitted to the United States and employed as members of labor crews organized by defendants. As a condition for obtaining H-2B visas, defendants certified to the Department of Labor that they would pay plaintiffs equal to, or in excess of, the prevailing wage for the job. At the time they recruited plaintiffs, defendants failed to provide plaintiffs with written statements of the terms and conditions of their employment.

Plaintiffs spent considerable sums of money in order to process their H-2B visas and to travel to the United States. These expenses amounted to approximately $1, 900 per worker. As a result of these unreimbursed expenses, plaintiffs earned significantly less than the minimum wage during their first week of work. Since plaintiffs returned home between each working season, they incurred these expenses multiple times during the relevant period. On average, plaintiffs believe that they are owed at least $1, 200 for unpaid minimum wages for their first weeks of work alone.

Plaintiffs allege a number of violations by the defendants under the FLSA and AWPA. First, according to plaintiffs, defendants would delay paying plaintiffs for several months after their work was completed. Second, defendants did not provide plaintiffs with pay stubs or any records regarding their hours, trees planted, wages paid, or deductions taken from their paychecks. This failure caused plaintiffs to be unable to state with certainty the amount of unpaid wages they are owed. Third, defendants failed to compensate plaintiffs for overtime when plaintiffs frequently worked over 40 hours a week. Fourth, defendants failed to pay plaintiffs the prevailing wage for the work they performed, which plaintiffs estimate to have been $9 per hour. Fifth, defendants deducted money from plaintiffs' wages for business expenses, such as gas and hotel rooms. Sixth, plaintiffs were required to travel long distances as part of their employment, for which they were not compensated. Overall, due to these shortcomings, plaintiffs earned significantly less than the minimum wage and the prevailing wage in the area.

Plaintiffs filed a class action complaint on October 21, 2013 seeking to bring class claims against defendants on behalf of all "individuals admitted as H-2B temporary foreign workers pursuant to 8 U.S.C. § 1101 (a)(15)(H)(ii)(b) who were employed in the defendants' forestry operations from October 2008 until the present." Compl. ¶ 56. Defendants Devin Spears-Thomas, Independent Labor Services, LLC, and White Pine Reforestation, LLC were served with process on December 17, 2013. Defendants Amy Spears-Thomas and Star Forestry, LLC were served with process on January 27, 2014. Defendants failed to file any responsive pleadings and the clerk entered default against them on March 12, 2014. Plaintiffs filed a motion for leave to take discovery on May 1, 2014, which the court granted on May 20, 2014. On August 19, 2014, plaintiffs deposed Amy Spears-Thomas on behalf of herself and Star Forestry. Neither Star Forestry nor Amy Spears-Thomas produced documents in response to plaintiffs' discovery requests.

On June 1, 2015, plaintiffs filed a motion to certify their proposed class and collective action. That same day, plaintiffs filed a motion for default judgment seeking actual and liquidated damages under the FLSA, actual and statutory damages under the AWPA, attorney's fees and costs, and injunctive relief. On October 10, 2015, the court granted plaintiffs' motion to certify the class and took the motion for default judgment under advisement.

Standard of Review

Rule 55 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure sets forth a two-step process for obtaining default judgment. When a defendant fails to plead or otherwise defend an action, the Clerk of Court is authorized to make an entry of default. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(a). After the Clerk's entry of default, a party may move for default judgment. Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(b).

Upon entry of default, all well-pleaded facts alleged in the complaint may be taken as true for purposes of liability. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(b)(6) ("An allegation-other than one relating to the amount of damages-is admitted if a responsive pleading is required and the allegation is not denied."); see also Ryan v. Homecomings Fin. Network, 253 F.3d 778, 780 (4th Cir. 2001) ("[T]he defendant, by his default, admits plaintiffs well-pleaded allegations of fact[.]") (internal citation omitted). Accordingly, in the default judgment context, the "appropriate inquiry is whether or not the face of the pleadings supports the default judgment and the causes of action therein." Anderson v. Found, for Advancement, Educ. & Emp't of Am. Indians, 187 F.3d 628, at *1 (4th Cir. Aug. 10, 1999) (unpublished table opinion). However, the defaulting defendant is not held to admit conclusions of law. Ryan v. Homecomings Fin-Network, 253 F.3d 778, 780 (4th Cir. 2001).

If the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to establish liability, the court must then determine the appropriate amount of damages. Ryan, 253 F.3d at 780-81. In so doing, the court may conduct an evidentiary hearing under Rule 55(b)(2). The court may also make a determination of damages without a hearing as long as there is an adequate evidentiary basis in the record for the award. See Anderson, 155 F.3d at 507 (noting that "in some circumstances a district court entering a default judgment may award damages ascertainable from the pleadings without holding a hearing"); Painters & Allied Trades Indus. Pension Fund v. Capital Restoration & Painting Co., 919 F.Supp.2d 680, 684 (D. Md. 2013) (finding that the court need not conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine damages and "may rely instead on affidavits or documentary evidence in the record to determine the appropriate sum.").

Discussion

I. Claims under the Agricultural Worker ...


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