The FLSA, the Agriculture Exemption, and a Class Action by ‘Independent’ Poultry Farmers Alleging Misclassification

An ongoing case in federal court in Macon represents a potentially important data point in an emerging area of Fair Labor Standards Act misclassification litigation: lawsuits between big agribusiness entities and the farmers with whom they work. These farmers are typically classified by the agribusiness companies as independent contractors, but now the farmers are suing, alleging that they actually are employees. As with any industry or field of business, if you think you’ve been illegally classified as an independent contractor, you should get in touch with an Atlanta employment misclassification lawyer right away.

The workers making up the class were a group of chicken farmers. The purported employer was a poultry processing company (the third largest in the country) that classified the farmers as independent contractors.

The farmers argued that the evidence they presented demonstrated a relationship where the poultry company retained an extremely high degree of control over the farmers, which is generally a hallmark of an employee-employer relationship, not an independent contractor-principal one. Although the company promised the farmers independence, it actually held the reigns over “virtually every aspect” of the farmers’ operations, according to the complaint. This allegedly included demanding specific “feed, medication, vaccinations”, and more, including barns.

The contract that the farmers signed with the company also prohibited the farmers from working with any other poultry company. (Exclusivity in your contractual relationship with a hiring entity can potentially be helpful evidence that you’re an employee, not an independent contractor.)

The company, however, had another basis for supporting its classification decision: the agricultural exemption to the FLSA.

The Agricultural Exemption Covers an Array of Activities

The agricultural exemption is laid out in two statutory subsections: 29 U.S. Code Section 213(b)(12) and Section 213(b)(13). The exemption contained in Subsection (b)(12) includes both something called “primary agriculture” and also something called “secondary agriculture.” Primary agriculture includes dairy farming, cultivating/tilling the soil, growing/harvesting crops, as well as raising livestock, poultry, or bees. Secondary agriculture covers “all practices… performed: (1) By a farmer or on a farm, and (2) As an incident to or in conjunction with such farming operations.”

Whenever an employer/hiring entity seeks to dismiss a misclassification lawsuit on the basis of the agricultural exemption, the law places the burden of proof on it, not the workers alleging misclassification

In the farmers’ case, they had two critical pieces on their side. For one thing, there was disagreement as to exactly which agricultural exemption (Subsection (b)(12) versus Subsection (b)(13)) applied to the farmers in this dispute. Second, the farmers alleged that they were engaged in both exempt and non-exempt work. If the farmers were able to prove that was true, then the exemption wouldn’t apply to them.

All of that was enough to overcome the company’s motion for dismissal and allow the farmers’ case to proceed.

Whether you’re a worker or an employer, the skilled Atlanta worker misclassification attorneys at the law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert can help. Our attorneys have aided numerous hiring entities in protecting themselves from liability due to misclassification, as well as successfully assisting workers wrongfully deemed as independent contractors. Our deep understanding of the FLSA helps us to impart useful and accurate answers to all our clients’ classification questions. Contact us through this website or at 404-873-8048 to schedule a consultation.

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