The Southern Poverty Law Center brought the case on behalf of workers who planted pine trees for Franklin, Ga.-based Eller and Sons Trees Inc. over about 10 years starting in 1999. The workers claimed they weren't reimbursed for travel and visa expenses. They also said they weren't given all the hours of work they were promised in their contracts and that the company failed to keep accurate records of their hours.
The judgment Monday ordered the company to pay $11.8 million to the workers.
"Employers are now on notice that these types of abusive employment situations involving guest workers will not be tolerated and will prove devastatingly costly," said Jim Knoepp, the main SPLC lawyer on the case.
"They did not abuse these guest workers. They made a lot of good money," said Larry Stine, a lawyer for company owner Jerry Eller. "The lawsuit was about technicalities."
The cost of defending against the lawsuit forced the company out of business, Stine said. Eller subsequently filed for bankruptcy, leaving little for the plaintiffs to collect.
Eller filed for bankruptcy in Montana, where he lives now, and the settlement of his bankruptcy case essentially says he will not appeal the judgment in the lawsuit and the guest workers agreed not to collect settlement money under most circumstances, Stine said.
"They managed to destroy the employer," Stine said. "They managed to destroy their future earnings. Mr. Eller was basically the main economic stay of a couple of villages in Guatemala."
The court found that employers can't effectively push a worker's pay below minimum wage by requiring them to pay for expenses like passports, visas and travel costs, which benefit the employer. The court also found that guest workers can enforce conditions on their visa applications, including the total number of hours the employees will work each week.
Even though his clients will likely receive very little money, the huge award is validation of the lawsuit and sends a powerful message to other employers who use guest workers, Knoepp said.
"Some of the legal precedents established in this case are benefiting other workers who come on guest worker visas. To that extent, we feel good about the outcome of the case," he said. "But it would obviously feel a lot better if I was calling up people to tell them where they could go pick up their money."