The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Saenz Mencia v. Allred on Monday, December 14, 2015.
German Wilmer Saenz Mencia, a citizen of Peru, came to Utah to work on the Allreds’ sheep ranch under an H-2A sheepherder visa, and was paid $750 per month plus room and board, the minimum for sheepherders. He brought claims in district court, arguing that the work he performed did not qualify as sheepherding and instead he was entitled to the hourly wage for ranch hands. Mr. Saenz asserted claims in contract and quantum meruit for the lost wages and FLSA minimum wage claims against the Allreds. The district court rejected Mr. Saenz’s claims, denied his summary judgment motion, and granted summary judgment to the Allreds. Mr. Saenz appealed.
The Tenth Circuit first analyzed the H-2A definition of sheepherding and the FLSA definition of range production of livestock. The Tenth Circuit determined that to fit the definitions, Mr. Saenz must have spent over half of his time on the range tending to the sheep and must have extremely variable hours, described as “the constant surveillance of livestock that graze and reproduce on range lands.” The Tenth Circuit found that there was no plausible reading of the definitions that would render Mr. Saenz a sheepherder. Mr. Saenz worked in the vicinity of ranch headquarters where the Allreds could see what he was doing and ask him to help with odd jobs. Mr. Saenz did work with sheep, but they did not graze; they were fed hay. The Tenth Circuit concluded that Mr. Saenz did not work on the range as contemplated by the definitions. The Tenth Circuit found further evidence in the fact that the Allreds and Mr. Saenz were easily able to approximate his hours, and that most of his jobs were incidental to sheepherding. The Tenth Circuit found that Mr. Saenz was a ranch hand, not a sheepherder.
The Tenth Circuit next examined the district court’s finding that Mr. Saenz’s claims were estopped. The district court found that because Mr. Saenz never complained of being underpayed while employed by the Allreds, he was estopped from bringing claims in court. The Tenth Circuit disagreed. The Allreds were employers of more than a dozen H-2A sheepherders, and had obtained the H-2A visas for their employers by vouching for the type of work they would do. The Tenth Circuit concluded the Allreds had both actual and constructive knowledge of the nature and location of Mr. Saenz’s work and rejected their equitable estoppel claim. The Tenth Circuit held that the Allreds had easy access to lawyers and were in the business of importing laborers, and they were therefore not entitled to equitable estoppel under Utah law.
The Tenth Circuit addressed each of the Allreds’ six alternative grounds on which they asked the court to affirm and found none convincing. The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the Allreds and directed it to grant summary judgment to Mr. Saenz. The Tenth Circuit remanded for a calculation of damages and any other proceedings necessary.