IJ Sues Department of Labor in Latest Attack on “Courts” That Aren’t Really Courts
If the government fined you thousands of dollars for allegedly violating a regulation, you’d probably expect to go through a basic legal process. You’d want an opportunity to defend yourself. You’d imagine making your case in a real court, overseen by a real judge, in front of a jury of your peers. You’d want the government to be required to bring real evidence to prove your guilt.
But that’s not what would happen if you were targeted by a federal agency. Instead, the agency itself would serve as investigator, witness, prosecutor, judge, and jury, and you would have almost no legal recourse. IJ client Chuck Saine experienced this administrative black box firsthand.
Chuck founded a small landscaping business in Maryland while he was still in college. Landscaping work depends on seasonal migrant labor, and C.S. Lawn & Landscape is no exception. For decades, C.S. Lawn participated in the federal government’s H-2B visa program, which allows employers to bring workers into the country legally to fill jobs that cannot be filled from the domestic labor market. Chuck paid workers well above minimum wage, and many workers returned year after year to work for him. After 40 years of running the small but successful company, Chuck was looking forward to retirement.
That plan was uprooted in April 2022. Following a seven-year investigation—without any legislative permission or judicial oversight—the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) fined Chuck’s small landscaping business more than $50,000 for regulatory violations (such as minor paperwork errors), including $43,500 for a harmless county zoning code violation.
That extreme penalty, and the way it was imposed, violates the U.S. Constitution. Under Article III and the Seventh Amendment, federal cases involving alleged violations like Chuck’s must be adjudicated by an independent judge (one with lifetime tenure and salary protections) and with a jury available. But there is no independent judge or jury in DOL’s proceedings.
So IJ and Chuck are fighting back. His case joins a string of IJ cases challenging the use of administrative courts by DOL and other agencies. This work isn’t just timely—it’s important. Neutral decision makers and juries make a difference. For example, data show agencies are overwhelmingly more likely to win—and Americans like Chuck to lose—in agency courts compared to real courts. Chuck’s harmless county zoning code violation bears that out. DOL ordered him to pay $43,500 for renting an apartment to workers in a neighborhood not zoned residential, even though none were harmed and several lived there multiple years in a row without incident. An independent judge and jury may have rejected the federal agency’s attempt to enforce local codes and likely would have imposed a lower fine because there was no harm.
Along with our case to dismantle the Memphis Environmental Court, Chuck’s case shows the real damage caused by the government making itself judge, jury, and prosecutor in sham “courts.” IJ will keep fighting until they’re a thing of the past and constitutional rights to due process are restored.
Bob Belden is an IJ attorney.
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