Supreme Court Strengthens Property Rights in Case Involving Labor Organizing on Farms

June 24, 2021 Updated: June 24, 2021

California regulation allowing labor organizers to disrupt businesses for hours every day for one-third of the year to recruit new members is unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled in a 6–3 vote along ideological lines.

“Today’s ruling is a huge victory for property rights,” Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) senior attorney Joshua Thompson said in a statement. The decision “affirms that one of the most fundamental aspects of property is the right to decide who can and can’t access your property.”

PLF is a national public interest law firm based in Sacramento, California, that represented farmers challenging the law.

The ruling is likely to have major repercussions for labor and property law well beyond agribusiness.

The Cato Institute, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, called the ruling the “biggest Supreme Court win for property rights in a long, long time.”

Conversely, Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern described it as “a crushing blow to organized labor, which often relies on workplace access to safeguard workers’ rights.”

The ruling “undermines the broader legal framework that permits the government to impose all manner of regulations on private property, including workplace safety laws and nondiscrimination requirements,” Stern wrote, and hands “business owners a loaded gun to aim at every regulation they oppose.”

‘Most Disruptive Event’

The decision in the case, Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid, court file 20-107, came on June 23.

The petitioners were Cedar Point Nursery, a strawberry farm in Dorris, California, and Fowler Packing Co., in Fresno, California, which produces grapes and mandarin oranges. Together, they employ about 3,000 people. The lead respondent is Victoria Hassid, a Democrat, in her capacity as head of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

“In the United States, everyone has a sovereign right—or should have the sovereign right—to determine who can and cannot come onto your property,” Mike Fahner, owner of Cedar Point Nursery, previously told The Epoch Times’ “Crossroads” program. “Well, we’ve been stripped of that in agriculture in the state of California.

“This is the most disruptive event that can happen to someone in business. The idea that strangers can come onto your property and solicit your workforce … for three hours per day, 120 days out of the year … it’s like paralysis.”

According to PLF, in the early hours of Oct. 29, 2015, dozens of union activists descended on Cedar Point Nursery without notice on a recruitment drive. The United Farm Workers (UFW) members waved red flags, shouted into bullhorns, intimidated the nursery’s staff, and interfered with preparation work on strawberry plants.

The legal complaint stated that some of the farm employees joined the organizers in a protest and others left the worksite. The nursery filed a charge against the union for taking access without giving notice and the union countered, accusing Cedar Point of unfair labor practices.

UFW organizers tried to access Fowler Packing facilities in July 2015, although the company blocked their advance. The union claimed it was the victim of unfair labor practices but later withdrew the charge.

The companies sued in U.S. district court claiming the access regulation effected an unconstitutional “per se” physical taking by appropriating without compensation an easement for labor organizers to enter their property. A per se taking is an appropriation of property that infringes on the owners’ right to exclude.

The district court threw out the lawsuit, finding there had been no per se taking because the regulation didn’t “allow the public to access their property in a permanent and continuous manner for whatever reason.” A divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed the lower court.

‘Most Treasured Rights’

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the court’s opinion, joined by the five other conservative justices—Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by the other liberal members of the court, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

“The right to exclude is ‘one of the most treasured’ rights of property ownership,” Roberts wrote in the court’s opinion, citing Loretto v. Teleprompter Manhattan CATV Corp. (1982).

Roberts continued, writing of English jurist William Blackstone, author of the influential “Commentaries on the Laws of England,” a 1766 text that scholars say provided a blueprint for the U.S. legal system.

The idea of property in itself entails “that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe,” Roberts wrote, quoting Blackstone.

The Supreme Court previously found the right to exclude is “universally held to be a fundamental element of the property right,” and is “one of the most essential sticks in the bundle of rights that are commonly characterized as property,” the chief justice wrote, citing Kaiser Aetna v. U.S. (1979).

Roberts noted that the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment, which has been applied to the states through the 14th Amendment by way of what lawyers call the doctrine of incorporation, provides: “Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

“The Founders recognized that the protection of private property is indispensable to the promotion of individual freedom,” Roberts wrote.

“As John Adams tersely put it, ‘property must be secured, or liberty cannot exist.’ … This Court agrees, having noted that protection of property rights is ‘necessary to preserve freedom’ and ‘empowers persons to shape and to plan their own destiny in a world where governments are always eager to do so for them,’” he wrote, citing Murr v. Wisconsin (2017).

“Unlike a mere trespass,” the California regulation “grants a formal entitlement to physically invade the growers’ land,” Roberts wrote.

“Unlike a law enforcement search, no traditional background principle of property law requires the growers to admit union organizers onto their premises.

“The fact that a right to take access is exercised only from time to time does not make it any less a physical taking.”

The dissenting opinion, penned by Breyer, stated: “Technically speaking, the majority is wrong. The regulation does not appropriate anything. … It gives union organizers the right temporarily to invade a portion of the property owners’ land. … The regulation regulates (but does not appropriate) the owners’ right to exclude.”

After the ruling, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board was conciliatory.

“Forty-six years ago, California led the way in recognizing labor rights for farmworkers and enshrined them in the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act. Despite today’s ruling, California will continue to champion these rights for some of our most essential workers,” Hassid said in a statement.

“We are committed to developing a process that meets the requirements of the high court’s ruling and continues to protect farmworker rights in light of agriculture’s unique circumstances.”