Cannabis Workers Say Farm Retaliated Over Virus Concerns

By Melissa Angell
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Law360 (January 12, 2021, 10:40 PM EST) -- Three marijuana farm workers sued their former employer Monday in California federal court, accusing the company of unlawfully firing them after they voiced complaints about working conditions amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Sisters Rachel, Alejandra and Andrea Montelongo claim Valley Harvest LLC and Nug Farms retaliated against them after they raised concerns about a number of working conditions to a company executive during their brief tenure at the cannabis farm.

But after Rachel Montelongo needed to leave work one day due to mental health reasons — and was accompanied by her two sisters — the women were fired one day later.

"This is an unlawful reason for firing them because the sisters' complaints concerned violations of health and safety laws, minimum wage laws, family rights protections, and the proper treatment of Rachel's disability," the suit says.

The women were hired by farm labor contractor Valley Harvest LLC and started their employment at Nug Farms in June. Throughout the course of their employment, the three sisters raised concerns to a company executive that they were not being compensated for time spent waiting in temperature check lines prior to their shifts. They also shared concerns about a lack of social distancing in their workplace, in which dozens of people worked in cramped conditions, the complaint notes.

The sisters also advocated for workers who weren't fluent in English, according to the suit.

In August, Andrea and Rachel Montelongo raised concerns about injuries they incurred after not being provided personal with protective equipment despite instructions to directly handle bleach, according to the complaint.

The same month, Rachel Montelongo left work one day to treat her postpartum depression and her sisters left with her. But the next day, one of the sisters received a phone call from human resources that conveyed all three women were fired from the farm, according to the complaint. Andrea Montelongo was told that she and her sister, Rachel Montelongo, was being fired for working too slowly and arriving late to work. When the sisters picked up their final checks, they were informed that Alejandra Montelongo was being fired due to overwatering certain plants.

"Defendants were clearly lying about why they fired the Montelongo sisters," the suit says. "The close temporal proximity between the Montelongo sisters' complaints and their discharge as well as statements from their supervisors confirming that they were all good workers reveals that the real reason defendants fired the Montelongo sisters was that defendants believed the sisters were complainers."

In their suit, the sisters bring employment discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a number of retaliation claims and violations of a California state labor statute. They seek damages to compensate lost wages, including back pay and front pay, and other lost benefits.

Sebastian Lamar Miller, who is representing the sisters, told Law360 on Tuesday that employment cases are financially and emotionally significant to those unlawfully fired and that this suit is no exception.

"The next steps for my clients are to untangle the web of entities through which Nug Farms does business and then either resolve the case with a fair settlement or present our evidence to a jury whenever civil jury trials may resume in the Northern District of California," Miller said.

Representatives for Valley Harvest did not immediately respond to Law360's request for comment Tuesday.

The Montelongos are represented by Sebastian Lamar Miller of Sebastian Miller Law PC.

Counsel for the defendants could not be ascertained Tuesday.

The case is Montelongo et al. v. Valley Harvest LLC et al., case number 5:21-cv-00235, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

--Editing by Breda Lund.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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Case Information

Case Title

Montelongo et al v. Valley Harvest, LLC et al


Case Number

5:21-cv-00235

Court

California Northern

Nature of Suit

American with Disabilities - Employment

Judge

Nathanael M. Cousins

Date Filed

January 11, 2021

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