Jun 23, 2021
Supreme Court rules against union organizers’ access to farm property

In what was seen as a victory for property owners, the U.S. Supreme Court on June 23 affirmed that the government cannot force people to allow third parties to trespass on their property.

In a 6-3 decision, the court struck down the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board rule that gave union organizers the right to physically access farm property to solicit support for unionization. The court held that the regulations were a state-sponsored taking of property rights without the just compensation guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

In Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid, two California agriculture businesses challenged a state law that allowed unions to access private property three hours per day, 120 days per year to recruit new members. Pacific Legal Foundation represented the businesses at the Supreme Court, arguing that when the government allows a third party onto someone else’s private property without compensating the property owners, it violates their property rights.

“Today’s ruling is a huge victory for property rights,” Pacific Legal Foundation senior attorney Joshua Thompson, who argued the case before the court, said in a news release. “Today’s decision affirms that one of the most fundamental aspects of property is the right to decide who can and can’t access your property. Pacific Legal Foundation is proud to have represented Cedar Point Nursery and Fowler Packing Company at the Supreme Court.”

In the predawn hours of October 29, 2015, dozens of union activists trespassed on Cedar Point Nursery’s property to recruit union members. They waved flags, shouted over bullhorns, intimidated the nursery’s staff, and disrupted the workday. When the nursery’s owner and president Mike Fahner found out the action was legal in California, he decided to fight what he believed was an unconstitutional law.

“This decision protects everyone’s freedom to decide for themselves who is — and is not – allowed on their own property,” Fahner said. “We’re very happy with the court’s ruling today, and we’re excited to keep running our businesses without unlawful interference.”

To view the Supreme Court’s ruling, visit here.

In response to the decision, Western Growers President and CEO Dave Puglia issued the following statement:

“This is a simple property rights case. States cannot take private property without just compensation, and property owners have the fundamental right to exclude trespassers. We applaud the Supreme Court for protecting the notion of private property rights as envisioned in our Constitution. We also commend Cedar Point Nursery, Fowler Packing Company and the Pacific Legal Foundation team for seeing this case through to its unequivocal conclusion.”

California’s access regulation faced Legal Challenge

Since 1975, California law has allowed union organizers access to agricultural employees at their worksite under limited circumstances “for the purpose of meeting and talking with employees and soliciting their support.” This Access Regulation was originally designed to provide union organizers with access to those employees who live on the farmer’s property in farm-provided housing and thus were generally not reachable by regular means. Specifically, access onto an agricultural employer’s property shall be available for up to 120 days each year, but no more than three hours each day. Prior to accessing the agricultural worksite, unions simply need to file a Notice of Intent to Take Access with the California Labor Relations Board and are not required to get employer consent.

The Petitioners in this case, two agricultural employers doing business in California, decided to challenge this state law.  Cedar Point Nursery is an Oregon-based company that raises and sells strawberries in California, while Fowler Packing Company is a California company and is one of the nation’s largest growers of produce.

The lower court proceedings

In early 2016, the Petitioners sued the California Labor Relations Board in federal court alleging the access requirement constituted a “taking” without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. The “takings clause” states in relevant part, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The clause is most commonly invoked when the government wants to permanently and physically impose on private property, such as installing cable lines or providing a public easement.

Cedar Point and Fowler also alleged the law amounted to an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. In sum, they argued that the Access Regulation “imposes an easement across the private property of Cedar Point and Fowler for the benefit of union organizers.” They pointed out that none of their employees lived on their property and therefore the union had access to these employees when they were not at work.

The companies sought declaratory and injunctive relief, seeking to prevent the Board from enforcing the regulation against them. The lower court granted the Board’s motion to dismiss on the grounds that the companies failed to state a plausible takings claim. Following the dismissal, Cedar Point and Fowler filed an appeal with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which also held that the access regulation was not unconstitutional and affirmed the district court’s ruling. The appeals court noted, among other things, that the easement was not a “classic taking in which government directly appropriates private property.” It also noted that although the regulation places limits on employers’ rights to exclude union organizers from their own property, this was insufficient to constitute a taking under the “permanent physical occupation” test.

The companies filed a final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which today granted them the relief they sought.

SCOTUS: Access Regulation, Without Just Compensation, Goes Too Far

The main legal question the Justices were asked to decide was whether the regulation constitutes a “taking” under the Fifth Amendment. Answering that question in the affirmative, the Court concluded that the regulation imposes a limitation on property rights such that compensation is constitutionally owed because “the access regulation grants labor organizations a right to invade the grower’s property.” The Court noted that its precedence establishes “that compensation is mandated when a leasehold is taken and the government occupies property for its own purposes, even though that use was temporary.”

Mike Fahner is the founder and CEO of Cedar Point Nursery, a strawberry farm in Butte County, California. Photo: Pacific Legal Foundation


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