Holly Farms Corp. et al. v. National Labor Relations Bd. et al. (95-210), 517 U.S. 392 (1996)
[ Ginsburg ]
[ O'Connor ]
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NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fourth circuit

No. 95-210. Argued February 21, 1996 -- Decided April 23, 1996

Respondent National Labor Relations Board (Board) approved a bargaining unit at the Wilkesboro, North Carolina, processing plant of petitioner Holly Farms Corporation, a vertically integrated poultry producer. The approved unit included workers described as "live haul" crews--teams of chicken catchers, forklift operators, and truckdrivers, who collect for slaughter chickens raised as broilers by independent contract growers, and transport the birds to the processing plant. On Holly Farms' petition for review, the Fourth Circuit enforced the Board's order. The court held that the Board's classification of the live haul workers as "employee[s]" protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA or Act), rather than "agricultural laborer[s]" excluded from the Act's coverage by §2(3) of the NLRA, rested on a reasonable interpretation of the Act and was consistent with the Board's prior decisions and with the Eighth Circuit's case law.

Held: The Board reasonably aligned the live haul crews with Holly Farms' processing operations, typing them covered "employee[s]," not exempt "agricultural laborer[s]"; therefore, the Fourth Circuit properly deferred to the Board's determination. Pp. 4-17.

(a) The term "agricultural laborer," as used in §2(3) of the NLRA, derives its meaning from the definition of "agriculture" supplied by §3(f) of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA). This definition includes farming in both a primary sense, which includes "the raising . . . of poultry," and a secondary sense, which encompasses practices "performed by a farmer or on a farm as an incident to or in conjunction with such farming operations." When a statutory prescription is not free from ambiguity, the Board must choose between conflicting reasonable interpretations. Courts, in turn, must respect the judgment of the agency empowered to apply the law to varying fact patterns. Bayside Enterprises, Inc. v. NLRB, 429 U.S. 298, 304. Pp. 4-7.

(b) The Court confronts no contention that the live haul crews are engaged in primary agriculture. Thus, the sole question the Court addresses and decides is whether the chicken catchers, forklift operators, and truck drivers are engaged in secondary agriculture. The live haul activities are not "performed by a farmer." When an integrated poultry producer contracts with independent growers for the care and feeding of chicks hatched in the producer's hatcheries, the producer's status as a farmer ends with respect to those chicks. Bayside, 429 U. S., at 302, n. 9. The producer does not resume farmer status when its live haul employees arrive on the independent farms to collect broilers for carriage to slaughter and processing. This conclusion entirely disposes of the contention that the truckdrivers are employed in secondary agriculture, for Holly Farms acknowledges that these crew members do not work "on a farm." Pp. 7-8.

(c) The more substantial question is whether the catching and loading of broilers qualifies as work performed "on a farm as an incident to or in conjunction with" the independent growers' farming operations. Holly Farms' position that this work is incident to the raising of poultry is a plausible, but not an inevitable, construction of FLSA §3(f). Hence, a reviewing court must examine the Board's position only for its reasonableness as an interpretation of the governing legislation. P. 8.

(d) The Board concluded that the collection of broilers for slaughter, although performed "on a farm," is not incidental to farming operations. Rather, the Board determined, the live haul crews' work is tied to Holly Farms' processing operations. This is a reasonable interpretation of the statute. Once the broilers have grown on the farm for seven weeks, the growers' contractual obligation to raise the birds ends, and the work of the live haul crew begins. The growers do not assist the crews in catching or loading the chickens, and the crews play no role in the growers' performance of their contractual undertakings. Furthermore, the live haul employees all work out of the Wilkesboro processing plant, begin and end each shift by punching a time clock at the plant, and are functionally integrated with other processing plant employees. It was also sensible for the Board to home in on the status of the crews' employer. Pp. 9-12.

(e) The Board's decision adheres to longstanding NLRB precedent, see, e.g., Imco Poultry, Div. of Int'l Multifoods Corp., 202 N. L. R. B.259, 260, and is supported by the construction of FLSA §3(f) by the Department of Labor, the agency responsible for administering the FLSA. The Department's interpretative regulations accord with the Board's conclusion that the live haul crews do not engage in secondary farming and further demonstrate that FLSA §3(f)'s meaning is not so plain as to bear only one permissible construction in the context at hand. Pp. 12-16.

48 F. 3d 1360, affirmed.

Ginsburg, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, and Breyer, JJ., joined. O'Connor, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Scalia and Thomas, JJ., joined.