New Mexico High Court Strikes Down Farm and Ranch Laborer Exclusion

Decision Continues Long National Trend to Treat Farm Workers on Par With Other Employees

A provision of the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act (Act) [N.M. Stat. Ann. § 52–1–6(A) (2015)] that excludes farm and ranch laborers from its protections, although other agricultural workers are not so excluded, is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of Article II, Section 18 of the New Mexico Constitution, held the state’s Supreme Court, in a divided decision [Rodriguez v. Brand West Dairy, 2016 N.M. LEXIS 150 (June 30, 2016)]. The majority’s decision reflects the fact that farming operations have substantially changed since the original enactment of state workers’ compensation laws 100 years ago. The decision continues the strong national trend that treats farm laborers similarly to factory and office workers.

Consolidated Cases

In one case, Aguirre worked as a chile picker. She claimed that while performing her work, she slipped in a field and broker her wrist. She contended further that after surgery and rehabilitative therapy for her injury, she still had trouble with her wrist, making it difficult for her to do farm work. Her employer had workers’ compensation coverage, but contended Aguirre’s claim was barred by the § 52–1–6(A) exclusion of farm and ranch laborers. The WCJ dismissed her claim with prejudice on the basis of the exclusion.

Rodriguez worked as a dairy worker and herdsman at a dairy. He alleged that he was pushed up against a door by a cow and then head-butted by the cow, which caused him to fall face first onto a cement floor. He contended further that thereafter he was in a coma for two days and that he suffered a traumatic brain injury, a neck injury, and facial disfigurement. As was the case with Aguirre’s claim, the WCJ dismissed Rodriguez’s case based on the farm and ranch laborer exclusion.

Last Year’s Decision by Court of Appeals

The cases were separately appealed to the state Court of Appeals, which consolidated them for purposes of considering the § 52–1–6(A) exclusion. Applying rational basis review, the Court of Appeals, in a split decision, struck down the farm and ranch laborer exclusion as a violation of Workers’ equal protection rights under Article II, Section 18 of the New Mexico Constitution [see Rodriguez v. Brand West Dairy, 2015-NMCA–097, ¶ 1, 356 P.3d 546, cert. granted, 2015-NMCERT–008, 369 P.3d 369].

Three-Step Process to Determine if Exclusion is Constitutional

In its determination of the constitutional issue, the majority of the Supreme Court utilized a three-step process in its determination, asking:

  1. If the statute created a class of similarly situated individuals and did it treat them differently?
  2. If it did, what level of scrutiny should be applied to the challenged statutory provision?
  3. Applying that appropriate level of scrutiny, did the farm and farm laborer exclusion pass constitutional muster?

Dissimilar Treatment of Similarly Situated Individuals

The majority noted that a worker is classified as a farm or ranch laborer for purposes of the Act when “the worker’s primary responsibility is performed on the farming premises and is an essential part of the cultivation of the crop” [Holguin v. Billy the Kid Produce, Inc., 1990-NMCA–073, ¶ 9, 110 N.M. 287, 795 P.2d 92]. In Holguin, the Court of Appeals determined that a worker who primarily filled and stacked sacks of onions in an onion shed was not a farm laborer under § 52–1–6(A).

A few years later, however, the Court of Appeals held that a beekeeper’s assistant, whose primary duties involved harvesting honey by helping to extract it from bee hives, was such a farm laborer [Tanner v. Bosque Honey Farm, Inc., 1995-NMCA–053, ¶¶ 2–3, 12, 119 N.M. 760, 895 P.2d 282]. The majority indicated there was not always a clear distinction between the the two types of work. The same agricultural employer could be exempt from providing mandatory workers’ compensation coverage for a worker who harvests an agricultural product in the field, but still be required to provide workers’ compensation to workers who process and package that same product because that task is merely “incidental” to farming.

The majority indicated that the farm and ranch laborers excluded by § 52–1–6(A) were similarly situated to other employees of agricultural employers with respect to the purposes of the Act. The majority also concluded that there was no unique characteristic that distinguished injured farm and ranch laborers from other employees of agricultural employers, and such a distinction was not essential to accomplishing the Act’s purposes.

Rational Basis Review Was Appropriate

Indicating that there were three levels of equal protection review based on the New Mexico Constitution—rational basis, intermediate scrutiny, and strict scrutiny—the majority indicated it would utilize the rational basis test since that test applied to general social and economic legislation that did not affect “a fundamental or important constitutional right or a suspect or sensitive class.” Under that test, the challenger was required to demonstrate that the law was not rationally related to a legitimate government purpose.

New Mexico’s Rational Basis Review Different From Federal Rational Basis Test

The majority stressed that New Mexico’s rational basis review was not the same as the federal rational basis test, under which the attacker had the burden to negative every conceivable basis that might support it. The majority said the federal test often amounted to a virtual rubber stamp. Under New Mexico’s rational basis test, the classification of farm and ranch laborers as exempt could be defeated by that the distinction was not rationally related to a legitimate government purpose.

Farm and Ranch Laborer Exclusion Had No Rational Basis

The majority held purported government interests such as cost savings, administrative convenience, and other justifications related to unique features of agribusiness bore no rational relationship to the Act’s distinction between farm and ranch laborers, on the one hand, and agricultural workers, on the other. According to the majority, the distinction between the two types of workers was nothing more than arbitrary discrimination and, as such, it was forbidden by the state’s Constitution.

The majority said that even assuming agricultural operations would face additional costs without the exclusion, these cost savings were only achieved through arbitrary discrimination against farm and ranch laborers. It added that while the legislature was within its power to offer economic advantages to the agricultural industry, it could not do so at the sole expense of the farm and ranch laborer while protecting all other agricultural workers.

Justice Nakamura’s Dissent

Justice Nakamura dissented, indicating in relevant part that by invalidating § 52–1–6(A)‘s exclusion of farms and ranches from mandatory participation in the state workers’ compensation scheme, the majority opinion had supplanted the Legislature’s view of what, all things considered, was best for New Mexico. She averred that the Court had neither the necessary facts nor the institutional mission to substitute its judgment for that of the Legislature regarding what is best for any particular industry within the State’s economy.

Status of Farm Laborers as Employees Around the Nation

Beginning 100 years ago, with the passage of the first state workers’ compensation laws, farm laborers were almost universally excluded from coverage [see Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, § 75.01, et seq.]. Over the years, many reasons were offered to explain the farm laborer exemption. The only one with any real substance was the practical administrative difficulty encountered decades ago by hundreds of thousands of small farmers in handing the necessary insurance, records, and accounting.

As farms became more specialized and commercialized, and as the family farm all but disappeared from many parts of the American landscape, a majority of states did away with the farm labor exclusion. For the most part, however, those states that discarded the exclusion did so without regard to the size or specialization of the farming operation. By the beginning of 2016, just 16 states continued to have true broad-based exclusions for farmworkers (Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas) [for an excellent, although understandably biased, overview of the exclusion, see the web site maintained by Farmworker Justice].

States Dropped Exclusion as “Farming Operations” Became More Difficult to Define

In recent decades, states have more often justified the repeal of labor exclusions based upon the difficulty of defining what work fit within the farm labor definition and what work did not. As pointed out by the New Mexico Supreme Court in Rodriguez, is it not altogether clear why filling sacks of onions in the onion shed is not farm work [the Holguin case], but extracting honey from hives [the Tanner case] or manufacturing fertilizer by maintaining a compost heap [Cueto v. Stahmann Farms, Inc., 1980-NMCA–036, ¶ 6, 94 N.M. 223, 608 P.2d 535] was farm work.

In other states, cases were somewhat inconsistent. The cultivation of orchards was easily determined to be farm labor [see Hammons v. Franzblau, 331 Mich. 572, 50 N.W.2d 161 (1951)], as was the rearing, feeding, and management of livestock, horses, and poultry [see, e.g., Fitzpatrick v. Crestfield Farms, Inc., 582 S.W.2d 44 (Ky. Ct. App. 1978)], but not the breeding and raising of hunting dogs [Partello v. Stipa, 115 Idaho 522, 768 P.2d 785 (1989)] or alligators [Gill v. Prehistoric Ponds, Inc., 280 Ga. App. 629, 634 S.E.2d 769 (2006), cert. denied, 2006 Ga. LEXIS 869 (Ga. Oct. 16, 2006)]. In several early New York cases, laborers picking beans were awarded workers’ compensation benefits in spite of a farm labor exclusion, where the court said the bean-gathering process was the first stage of preparing the vegetables for canning [Moreno v. Halstead Canning Co., 258 A.D. 832, 15 N.Y.S.2d 765 (1939)].

Not only is it often difficult to draw fine lines between some work activities that are clearly farm labor and others that are not, many workers might move back and forth between “true” farm labor and non-farm labor during a given work day. Dr. Arthur Larson used to refer to the farm employee’s status as being in a “Twilight Zone” of compensability (harkening back to the popular television drama of the late 50s and early 60s, where characters sometimes found themselves dealing with strange, sometimes inexplicable happenings).

Such a schizophrenic employment existence is unsatisfactory, of course. As noted above, most states have resolved it by moving away from the historic farm labor exemption, allowing perhaps for truly small farm operations to be exempt from coverage to the same extent as other small employers. As noted above, however, 16 states have stubbornly hung on to the exclusion.

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