A lawyer’s weapon against farm worker complaints: Deportation
As an attorney representing California Central Valley farmers and labor contractors who rely heavily on undocumented workers, Anthony Raimondo has become widely known for performing a sort of magic trick. He can sometimes make legal complaints against his clients – and the people who file them – disappear.
In at least seven cases where workers accused his clients of mistreatment, Raimondo asked immigration authorities if they would like to arrest the complainants.
And, then, presto: At least three cases against his clients apparently were derailed, and two complainants—both, Raimondo says, with criminal records– were deported.
Workers’ attorneys only “find out when their clients are already gone,” he once explained in an email to an official in Washington.
Along with fighting for farmers accused of cheating employees, Raimondo has defended labor contractors against accusations that they are responsible for crash deaths of workers transported under unsafe conditions. In the process, Raimondo has won the hearts of grateful clients and championed the idea that California overregulates business.
He also has made union organizers apoplectic. There is no way to know how many workers may have remained silent about abuses because they feared Raimondo’s tactics. “Pretty much everyone considers him a slime bucket,” said United Food and Commercial Workers organizer Pete Maturino. The organizer recalled having brought a worker to an arbitration hearing at Raimondo’s Fresno law office to contest a three-day suspension, only to discover that the worker was arrested and booted from the country by immigration agents waiting outside.
A federal appellate judge recently compared Raimondo to a serial killer. After reading some of his correspondence with immigration authorities, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Trott said, “You’ve got this guy, Raimondo, he’s kind of like a serial killer here, running around probably representing himself as ‘I can get rid of these cases by getting rid of the plaintiffs.’ That’s what he’s doing.” Trott speculated during oral argument in a case in which Raimondo is accused of illegally retaliating against an undocumented worker who had sued a client for underpaying him. “He’s got a freestanding relationship with [immigration police] to check out these people and get rid of them before the lawsuit [they’ve brought against his client] can even proceed.”
Even the State Legislature appears to have tried to rein him in. Until his practices came to light, the code of professional conduct for lawyers in California was silent on whether it would be unethical for a lawyer to report someone suing his client to law enforcement. The code said only that it would be unethical to threaten to do so to gain leverage, and Raimondo says he never threatened anyone; he just reported them. But in 2013, as farm worker lawyers prepared to file the retaliation case that landed at the Ninth Circuit, legislators amended the state code to make it explicit that merely reporting to law enforcement for a retaliatory purpose can result in disbarment.
Raimondo, it appears, then stopped his reporting. He says retaliation has never been his game. He was simply reporting the crime of having crossed the border illegally, and it was up to law enforcement to decide whether to make arrests. Imagine, he said, if he had been reporting another kind of crime. Would anyone have had a problem with him reporting a litigant for selling drugs or engaging in human trafficking or driving drunk? “How do we draw a principled intellectual distinction between [reporting] one type of violation of the law and another?” he asked.
The ethical infraction that grabs him, he says, involves alleged misconduct by one of his perennial foes, California Rural Legal Assistance, a legal services nonprofit. “Anything that happened to the workers was ancillary,” he said. “My primary purpose was holding CRLA accountable to the rules.”
The CRLA has a long record of representing indigent farm workers in routine as well as groundbreaking lawsuits, such as one that outlawed mandatory use of the backbreaking short-handled hoe many years ago. Raimondo says CRLA attorneys have no business representing undocumented workers, since CRLA receives federal funds through the Legal Services Corp., and Congress has generally barred agencies that receive such funds from representing the undocumented in civil cases. Raimondo and others have alleged for years that CRLA violates this stricture. But while investigations by the Legal Services Corp. have found reasons to be suspicious, they have ultimately been inconclusive. Investigators have been hampered by CRLA’s reluctance to turn over client records on grounds that doing so would violate client confidentiality.
CRLA executive director Jose Padilla declined to be interviewed for this article, but said in an email that his agency’s “litigation speaks for itself. If Attorney Raimondo’s interest in CRLA’s compliance with Federal regulations is serious, it can be addressed directly to the Legal Services Corporation that funds our civil legal services to farmworkers, the real victims in his quest to police us.”
Raimondo says he has been asking the Legal Services Corp. to stop CRLA from representing undocumented workers for more than 10 years. He even petitioned Fresno County Superior Court in 2012. That was in an effort to keep CRLA from representing a farm hand he said was undocumented who had sued a Raimondo client. “It bothers me,” Raimondo explained in an email to his principal contact at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, “that there are low-income individuals who are citizens legally present [in the United States] who desperately need these publicly funded services, and [the services] are being misdirected to individuals who are not legally entitled to them.”
Judge Trott of the Ninth Circuit scoffed at that, calling it part of “a mindboggling argument that this man was motivated by the ethics and the law.”
Raimondo said he was in the courtroom in March when Trott made that comment and remembers thinking, “Really? When was the last time you had a client?” Appointed to the bench by President Reagan after a long career as a prosecutor, Trott has never been in private practice.
In the case Trott was addressing, as well as most others, Raimondo said, he had no expectation that immigration authorities would take him up on his offer to help arrest the complainant because, as far as he knew, the complainant had no criminal record. His goal, he said, was merely to gather proof that CRLA was again representing an undocumented worker, in the hope of forcing CRLA off the case.
His clients – dairymen he described as an illiterate immigrant from the Azores and his son—were in bad shape financially and “from a compliance standpoint, the case was a disaster.” He acknowledged that the complainant “was definitely owed money for overtime, minimum wage, record keeping penalties. They were also violating immigration law because they knew he was undocumented.” But he said CRLA was making settlement demands so extreme that they would have bankrupted his client. “If we can get a different set of attorneys in the case,” he recalled telling his client, “maybe we’ll get somebody who’ll acknowledge your financial situation.”
Raimondo agreed to an interview with FairWarning because he said his side of the story was not being told. The portly 47-year-old pulled up to a Fresno restaurant one evening last month in a rare Toyota Sunchaser, a custom modified convertible circa 1980 that appeared to be in immaculate condition. He wore shorts and a yellow print shirt that matched the color of his car.
Articulate and polite, he said over a steak that he had grown up in Los Angeles County’s South Bay with the ambition of becoming a public defender. After graduating with honors from the Vermont Law School, where he said he worked in the school’s legal aid clinic, he said he moved back West, worked in consumer-rights campaigns and in a campaign to ensure voting rights in Bosnia after the war there. Then he got a job in Fresno, defending indigents in serious criminal cases in which the Fresno County Public Defender’s office had disqualified itself because of conflicts of interest. He was later hired by that office as a deputy public defender, but did not stay long, he said, because the work was harsh and depressing. “More and more I felt like I was shuffling people through a meat grinder.” In addition, he said he was starting a family and the health benefits were not so good.
Looking around for another opportunity, Raimondo said he saw a help-wanted ad posted on a bulletin board by a law firm that represented farmers.
That launched him on what appears to have become his longest-standing crusade, railing against government regulators he sees as being overly sensitive to the rights of the undocumented and not sensitive enough to the problems of those who employ them.
There is no question that Raimondo’s Central Valley clients have to make awkward accommodations, as do their employees. Workers who tend livestock and harvest crops are mostly undocumented, according to government surveys. But the government requires employers to get documentation that every job applicant has the legal right to work in this country. “We do what the government tells us to do,” said Anja Raudenbaugh, chief executive of California’s Western United Dairymen, to whose 800 members Raimondo provides legal advice.
If farmers were bold enough to reject an applicant because they believed the applicant’s documents were phony, and were wrong, she said, they might successfully be sued for discrimination. Although undocumented workers are subject to deportation, they are also entitled to make complaints free from fear of retaliation under American labor laws that give them the same workplace protections as legal residents.Raudenbaugh said many of her association’s members see Raimondo as “something of a hero” for steering them artfully through legal minefields and for his fierce defense of their interests.In addressing farmers, Raimondo uses a scared straight approach. At one presentation that he called “the hidden traps of wage and hour legislation,” Raimondo warned of greedy plaintiffs attorneys who will prolong cases just to run up fees. The lawyers then use the threat of mounting fees as a club to get farm owners to pay exorbitant settlements — a tactic he described as ”legalized extortion.” Labor law regulators, too, are a danger, he said. “They don’t like to settle.”
The case that came before the Ninth Circuit involved undocumented dairy worker Jose Arnulfo Arias, who had sued Angelo Dairy years earlier for not paying wages he was owed. Arias said he worked for the small dairy for nearly 10 years, beginning in 1995. He said the dairy owners paid no attention to his immigration status until two years after he was hired when he told them he had been offered a better job at another dairy. He said one of the owners then threatened to report the other dairy to immigration authorities for hiring undocumented workers if Arias took the job. Arias said he stayed at Angelo Dairy for another eight years, even though at times he was shorted on his pay.
After he finally left, CRLA attorneys drafted a lawsuit alleging that Angelo Dairy owed him and other employees back pay. The case proceeded on a long, circuitous path because business groups challenged his right to sue on behalf of other employees as well as himself. But the California Supreme Court ruled that the suit could go forward, and it was scheduled for trial in the summer of 2011.
As the trial approached, however, Raimondo contacted ICE. He told his regular contact there via email that he needed help “to confirm what I suspect—that this individual is in the country illegally.” Neither the contact nor an ICE agency spokesperson would comment.
The contact, a forensic auditor, emailed back to report a snag in confirming Arias’ immigration status. “This one was not as easy as the last one,” she wrote. But when Raimondo provided additional information about Arias, his ICE contact reported her agency had no record of him entering the country legally.
Raimondo offered to facilitate Arias’ arrest, writing that Arias “will be attending a deposition next week. If there is an interest in apprehending him, please let me know so that we can make the necessary arrangements.”
By then, Raimondo had already assisted ICE in deporting another worker who was suing one of his clients for wrongful termination. As that case headed for trial, Raimondo said the worker, Luis Masedo, threatened his client with a gun. Raimondo got a court order to keep Masedo away from his client. But Masedo’s attorney insisted, over what Raimondo said were his objections, that Masedo attend the deposition of the wife of Raimondo’s client. Raimondo then tipped off immigration agents, who Raimondo said were interested in deporting Masedo because he had previously been convicted of illegal possession of a gun. Raimondo said he told ICE agents waiting outside “what [Masedo]was wearing and what door he’d be coming out of [and] we never saw him again.”
When Raimondo told his ICE contact that he could facilitate Arias’ arrest at a deposition, Arias’ attorneys from CRLA apparently learned that another deportation might be in the works. They alerted Arias who, they said, suffered such “extreme anxiety” that he decided to pull the plug on his long effort to get his case to trial. The Fresno County resident faced the prospect of being forcibly separated from his wife and four children. “I brought this case in good faith because I had a legal right to do so,” he said in a court declaration.
But he decided to settle out of court on undisclosed terms. “I felt pressured by [Raimondo’s] action to settle my case,” he explained in the declaration, which was translated from his native Spanish. “I felt this was wrong and that my rights had been violated.” FairWarning’s attempts to reach Arias for an interview failed, and his attorneys declined to make him available.Two years after settling his initial case, Arias sued the dairy again, adding Raimondo as a defendant, claiming that Raimondo’s reporting him to ICE constituted illegal retaliation for Arias having accused the dairy of wage violations. Arias was once again represented by CRLA. But, perhaps as a precaution, this time CRLA enlisted co-counsel from another legal aid organization that accepts no federal funds.
At an early stage, Raimondo said Arias was paid $25,000 to drop the dairy from the case, which left Raimondo as the only defendant. A federal judge in Sacramento dismissed the case against Raimondo in 2014, saying federal law did not allow a worker to sue an employer’s attorney for retaliation, only the employer.
Arias appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal. When a three-judge panel opined that he could sue Raimondo — and that Raimondo’s efforts were “an underhanded plan to derail” Arias’s case — a slew of emails that Raimondo had sent to his ICE contact took center stage. They showed that Raimondo had a pattern of reporting farm workers.
In late 2011, for example, he wrote to inquire about the ICE Enforcement and Removal section’s “interest in the [other] individuals we have discussed. … I need to take action in my cases,” he continued, “but if removal is interested, I will hold off so that they can arrange for the necessary arrests. Of course, I will be pleased to cooperate and assist in any way I can to ensure that any arrests are accomplished efficiently and safely.”
Later that year, he asked for help while defending an employer against a unionized employee who had filed a grievance. “As always, if removal is interested in this person, I would be pleased to assist them,” he wrote. This may have been a reference to Luis Mendez, who had been suspended from work at a dairy for supposedly mistreating a calf. While Mendez appealed the suspension to an arbitrator, Raimondo asked his ICE contact to see if Mendez was in the country illegally. Meanwhile, he said he learned from a private investigator that Mendez had convictions for methamphetamine sales. That made him easy to deport. Raimondo told ICE agents when the arbitration hearing was scheduled at his office. and When Mendez showed up, they grabbed him, a union organizer said.
The next year Raimondo reported another “individual who is represented by CRLA using U.S. Taxpayer funds. Are you able to verify his status?” he asked his contact. “Is removal interested in taking action against him? We would be pleased to assist in this regard.”
And in early 2013, he wrote his ICE contact for help two more times. “This is what we know about the guy I was talking about,” Raimondo wrote. “Please let me know his status, and we are willing to help if he meets the standards for removal.” Later that year, he wrote: “I have another person who is being represented by a taxpayer funded agency, where I have reason to believe that she is undocumented . Can you check this out for me? If removal is interested in her, we would be pleased to assist.” Raimondo said he could not recall whom he was talking about in these 2013 emails.
The Ninth Circuit panel’s ruling in June directed the district court to allow Arias’ case against Raimondo to proceed to trial. It also set a precedent. It was the first time a federal appeals court had declared that, in addition to an employer, someone “acting directly or indirectly” in the employer’s interest could be sued for retaliating against an employee who stood up for his rights under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. This widened interpretation of liability set off alarms at a number of California business organizations, which in July joined Raimondo in asking for a rehearing before all 9th circuit judges. When that request was denied, Raimondo said he would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. He posted on his LinkedIn website: “I will never apologize for trying to protect family farms.”
While he waits for a possible trial in the retaliation case against him, Raimondo has pursued his campaign to rein in what he sees as government regulator excess. On behalf of a client, he drafted a lawsuit against two U.S. Labor Department officials that is similar to the case Arias filed against him. He claimed they should be held personally liable for illegally retaliating against a labor contractor he represented, to punish her for exercising her legal rights.
The contractor, Ileana S. Arvizu, who operates as ISA Contracting Services, had filed her annual application for renewal of her operating certificate from the Department of Labor. But officials denied her application. Raimondo said the denial was retaliation for her fighting other charges the department had filed against her. Ultimately, she settled those charges. Then Raimondo filed a lawsuit against the head of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division in San Francisco, Ruben Rosalez, and the division’s chief attorney, Susan Seletsky, arguing that they had illegally forced Arvizu “to choose between [the] right to a fair hearing on the allegations, or financial ruin” if her certificate was not renewed. Neither would comment.
Since then, Raimondo has continued attacking Labor Department attorneys, alleging that they routinely violate the California Rules of Professional Conduct by having their investigators interview witnesses outside the presence of the witnesses’ attorneys.
Raimondo made this accusation in fighting a Labor Department subpoena for records from another farm labor contractor client, JY Harvesting. The agency is investigating it in connection with the vehicular death of a farm worker. Labor contractors often provide farm workers with transportation to and from an owner’s fields. A federal judge has observed that use of unsafe vehicles and drivers without licenses appears to be widespread. In the JY case, a tire blew in a van carrying seven workers in San Diego County in March 2017. The van overturned, six workers were injured and one, whose seat belt had been cut, was thrown from the vehicle and died.
Raimondo in recent years has defended two other contractors whose workers died while being transported.But perhaps Raimondo’s most significant ongoing case involves an epic farming industry battle that could spell deeper trouble for the struggling United Farm Workers Union.
UFW is a shadow of its once powerful self, having shrunk from a membership of more than 70,000 to fewer than 10,000.
In 1990, it won an election to represent workers at the largest stone fruit grower in the Central Valley, Gerawan Farming Inc., which employed more than 5,000 workers. After unsuccessful attempts at negotiating a contract in the early 1990s, UFW appeared to give up, but renewed its efforts in 2012. Gerawan fought the union’s return, engaging in what an administrative judge for the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board later determined was bad faith bargaining.
Meanwhile, a 2013 campaign led by Raimondo’s client, Gerawan employee Silvia Lopez, sought to gather enough worker signatures for a vote to decertify UFW. The vote was held but the votes have never been counted because the ALRB determined that Gerawan unlawfully interfered in the election.
Lopez, meanwhile, has been named president of a newly incorporated nonprofit called Pick Justice whose website says it wants to stop farm workers from being “victimized” by a government agency with “dishonest attorneys” – namely, the ALRB.
Bridget Huber contributed to this story.
FairWarning is a nonprofit news organization based in Southern California that focuses on public health, consumer, labor and environmental issues.