Martinez-Cuevas v. DeRuyter Bros. Dairy, 475 P.3d 164 (Wash. 2020)

The Washington Supreme Court held that RCW 49.46.130(2)(g), which excluded agricultural workers from the Minimum Wage Act’s overtime protections, violated the privileges and immunities clause of the state constitution. The decision declared the health, safety, and protection of workers in dangerous industries in Washington State to be a fundamental right warranting safeguards against undue favoritism.

Date of the Ruling: 
Nov 5 2020
Washington State Supreme Court
Type of Forum: 

Martinez-Cuevas and Aguilar filed a class action lawsuit against their employer, DeRuyter Bros. Dairy Co., seeking in part a judgement declaring RCW 49.46.130(2)(g) of the Washington Minimum Wage Act (MWA) unconstitutional. The workers claimed that the DeRuyter Brother’s Dairy Company failed to meet minimum wage standards, denied adequate breaks or time for meals, and failed to compensate for work done prior to and following many workers’ shifts. Although the parties were able to resolve these claims via a settlement, the constitutional challenge regarding the exclusion of agricultural workers from the definition of employee in the MWA remained. Petitioners argued that the exclusion of dairy workers from the overtime protections of the MWA violated the privileges and immunities clause found in Article I, §12 of the Washington State Constitution. They further argued that their exclusion from the MWA’s overtime protections implicates a fundamental right of state citizenship – the right of those working in dangerous industries to receive workplace health and safety protections.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the exclusion of workers from the MWA’s overtime protections was an unconstitutional violation of the state’s privileges and immunities clause. Per Washington State precedent, a privileges and immunities claim requires an independent two-step analysis.  The first step of the analysis asks whether a “privilege or immunity”—a law implicating “fundamental rights of state citizenship”—has been granted. If answered affirmatively, the second step of the analysis requires the court to determine whether the legislature had “reasonable grounds” for granting the privilege or immunity, asking whether the legislature’s distinction served the legislature’s stated goal.

Applying the first prong of the analysis, the Court interpreted Article II, §35 of the state constitution as creating an affirmative duty by the state legislature to pass laws for the protection of employees working in dangerous conditions. The Court then reasoned that dairy work is a hazardous profession and has an injury rate in Washington that is one hundred and twenty one percent higher than all other state industries combined. The danger of dairy work was additionally exasperated by the overtime working conditions of DeRuyter’s farm because the class regularly worked over forty hours a week. Finding that the first prong of the analysis was met, the Court was then left to determine whether the legislative record supported DeRuyter’s argument that exclusion of agricultural workers from the MWA was based on reasonable grounds. The court concluded that because the overtime protections are a health and safety measure, and because there was no legislative history offering a health and safety justification for excluding dairy workers, no reasonable grounds were present.

Enforcement of the Decision and Outcomes: 

Per instructions from Washington State Supreme Court, the case was remanded to the trial court for an entry of summary judgement in favor of the class of dairy workers with the additional instruction that attorney fees be awarded as well. The trial court approved a class settlement which resulted in the payment of DeRuyter workers for back overtime pay, including interest. Additionally, the settlement included partial attorney fees and incentive payments for the class representatives.

Groups involved in the case: 

Intervenor-Respondents: Washington State Dairy Federation; Washington Farm Bureau

Amicus Curiae: Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality; American Civil Liberties Union of Washington; Washington State Tree Fruit Association; Hop Growers of Washington; The Farmworker Justice Project; Professor Marc Linder; Washington Employment Lawyers Association; National Employment Law Project; Familias Unidas Por La Justicia; United Farm Workers of America

Significance of the Case: 

This case marks a significant stance by the Washington State Supreme Court recognizing agricultural workers’ labor guarantees through the privileges and immunities clause of the state constitution. Although the decision concerned the constitutionality of the MWA exception as it relates to dairy workers, in the legislative session immediately following the decision, the Washington legislature adopted ESSB 5172, which grants overtime protections to all agricultural workers on a phased-in basis, by January 1, 2024.  

For their contributions, special thanks to ESCR-Net members: the Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) at Northeastern University.