A Mexican farm worker on a temporary work visa can’t be forced to arbitrate his wage and hour claims because the arbitration agreement he signed was done so under duress, a federal court judge ruled last week.

Dario Martinez-Gonzalez worked for Elkhorn Packing Co. and grower D’Arrigo Bros.  during the 2016 and 2017 lettuce seasons on an H-2A worker visa. In 2018, he filed a lawsuit alleging he was underpaid, not provided adequate meal or rest breaks, and given food that was unsafe to eat. Elkhorn in December 2018 moved for the court to enforce arbitration.

According to court documents, Martinez-Gonzalez and other witnesses testified they were not presented with their new-hire paperwork, including the arbitration agreement, until they were already at the worksite in the US. Martinez-Gonzalez and other workers told the court they had to wait on their feet for their turn to sign their documents, after having worked for hours in the fields, already tired and hungry. They had no opportunity to review the papers; supervisors would flip through the pages of the new-hire packet, including the arbitration agreement, and tell the workers where to sign.

Pay stub and other evidence led the court to conclude that the orientation meetings provided no real opportunity to review the new-hire documents, including a thorough explanation of the arbitration agreement. The court also held Martinez-Gonzales “reasonably believed that he had no choice but to sign the documents presented to him. If he did not, he believed that he would be fired and either sent back to Mexico by Elkhorn and/or he would no longer be eligible to work in the United States.”

The court concluded that the arbitration agreement was the product of economic duress and undue influence, and therefore is neither valid nor enforceable.