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Class action lawsuit filed on behalf of orchard workers

The legal firm representing the company that manages an orchard operation near Sunnyside says there is no credible evidence that any of the allegations highlighted in a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of the employees who worked at the fruit farm in 2009, 2010 and 2011 are true.

Yakima-based Columbia Legal Services, a non-profit law firm that typically provides civil legal assistance to low income people, is representing the plaintiffs.

According to Columbia Legal Services, Felipe Acevedo worked for NW Management and Realty Services, the operator of the Alexander and Independence road orchards outside of Sunnyside, for about a dozen years. Attorneys for the non-profit agency say despite Acevedo's years of service, he was fired at the beginning of the 2011 apple harvest, along with a group of nine other workers.

The class action suit alleges the workers were blamed for attempting to get help to stop the foreman, Juan Morfin, from shooting a gun to intimidate the farm laborers.

Columbia Legal Services goes on to report that just days after L&I conducted an investigation into the claims of gunshots being fired in the orchard, the group of 10 was told there was no more work for them.

The legal firm for the plaintiffs said according to Acevedo his son called the company that operates the orchards to report discrimination, and that he was told an investigation was underway and Mr. Acevedo would be contacted, but he never was.

Brendan Monahan, a Yakima attorney who is employed by the company that operates the orchards, said the supervisor in question denies firing any weapons as the orchard workers claim. Monahan said the outcome of the L&I investigation deemed there was no evidence of wrong doing. Monahan said a subsequent investigation by the Yakima County Sheriff's Office also found no evidence of wrong doing.

"There is no credible evidence the allegations are true," Monahan said.

Columbia Legal Services maintains state law prohibits retaliation against workers who act together for their own mutual aid and protection.

The attorneys for the plaintiffs say the orchard workers also have claims under federal law that protects farm workers based on the employer's practice of failing to provide accurate information about wages. Instead of providing the disclosures required by law, the attorneys report that according to Acevedo, "...the foreman would get mad when people asked about the wage the company will pay."

The class action suit also alleges that NW Management and Realty Services operated without a state farm labor contractor's license. Columbia Legal Services said the orchards are owned by John Hancock Insurance company affiliates, and say they face shared responsibility for damages under the Farm Labor Contractors Act because they used an unlicensed contractor.

Monahan said NW Management operates the orchards, itself, thus the act in question does not apply in this case.

The contention that the orchard operator used an unlicensed contractor, said Monahan, "...is an effort to expand the scope of the lawsuit in terms of seeking punitive damages."

Columbia Legal Services said it is seeking to include in the case all workers who were employed at the Alexander and Independence orchards in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Farm workers who have questions are being urged to contact the non-profit law firm at 1-800-631-1323, extension 201.

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