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Farm Labor Organizing Committee v. Stein

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

May 17, 2019

JOSHUA STEIN, Defendant.


          L. Patrick Auld United States Magistrate Judge.

         This case comes before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for a recommendation on the “Motion for Reconsideration by North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation, Inc.” (Docket Entry 64) (the “Reconsideration Motion”). For the reasons that follow, the Court should deny the Reconsideration Motion.


         I. Procedural History

         Asserting constitutional and statutory violations, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (“FLOC”), Victor Toledo Vences, and Valentin Alvarado Hernandez (collectively, the “Plaintiffs”) initiated this lawsuit against Roy Cooper, in his official capacity as Governor of the State of North Carolina, and Marion R. Warren, in his official capacity as Director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts. (See Docket Entry 1 (the “Complaint”), ¶¶ 1, 2, 7, 8.) The following week, Plaintiffs filed a motion for preliminary injunction. (See Docket Entry 7.) Shortly thereafter, the North Carolina Department of Justice (at times, the “NC DOJ”) filed notices of appearance on behalf of Governor Cooper (see Docket Entry 12) and Warren (see Docket Entry 14), after which Governor Cooper and Warren moved to dismiss the Complaint (see Docket Entries 24, 27) on eleventh-amendment immunity and standing grounds (see Docket Entries 25, 27, 28). That same day, the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation, Inc. (the “Farm Bureau”) filed a motion to intervene as a defendant in this action (see Docket Entry 21) pursuant to Rule 24 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (the “Rules”). Rather than attach a proposed answer to its intervention motion, the Farm Bureau instead submitted a proposed motion to dismiss (Docket Entry 21-1). (See Docket Entries 21-1 to 21-6.)

         Plaintiffs then filed an amended complaint, which replaced Governor Cooper as a defendant with Joshua Stein, in his official capacity as Attorney General of the State of North Carolina. (See Docket Entry 31 (the “Amended Complaint”), ¶¶ 7, 8, 12, 13 (identifying Stein and Warren as defendants).) Plaintiffs also filed an amended preliminary injunction motion, seeking “to preliminar[ily] enjoin Section 20.5 of the North Carolina General Assembly Session Law 2017-108, SB 615 (‘the Farm Act' or ‘the Act').” (Docket Entry 34 at 1.)[1]

         In response, the NC DOJ filed a notice of appearance on Stein's behalf (see Docket Entry 36), [2] Stein and Warren moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint (Docket Entries 39, 44), and they opposed Plaintiffs' preliminary injunction request (see Docket Entries 41, 46). Stein's dismissal motion and preliminary injunction opposition relied on eleventh-amendment sovereign immunity and standing grounds. (See generally Docket Entries 45, 46; see also, e.g., Docket Entry 45 at 7 (summarizing dismissal argument as follows: “Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint should be dismissed because the Eleventh Amendment bars all the claims brought against Attorney General Stein in this case, and as a result, this court lacks jurisdiction over him. Moreover, the Amended Complaint should be dismissed because Plaintiffs[] have failed to demonstrate that they have suffered an injury-in-fact and that any alleged injuries are traceable to the Attorney General, and as a result, Plaintiffs lack standing to bring this lawsuit.”).) Governor Cooper, Warren, and Stein took “no position on the [Farm Bureau's intervention] motion, ” but “Plaintiffs oppose[d] th[e] motion.” (Docket Entry 21 at 2; see also Docket Entries dated Jan. 25, 2018, to present (containing responses to intervention motion and Reconsideration Motion from Plaintiffs, but not Governor Cooper, Warren, or Stein).)

         Thereafter, the undersigned recommended that the Court dismiss Warren from the lawsuit, deny Stein's dismissal motion, deny the Farm Bureau's intervention request, and grant Plaintiffs' preliminary injunction motion. (See Docket Entry 56 (the “Recommendation”) at 79-80.) In so doing, the Recommendation concluded:

Plaintiffs possess standing to pursue this action, but sovereign immunity shields Warren from suit. Conversely, the Ex parte Young exception applies to Stein, rendering him a proper defendant. Further, the Farm Bureau has not shown entitlement to intervention of right or circumstances warranting permissive intervention as a defendant in this action. Finally, Plaintiffs have established entitlement to issuance of an injunction without posting a bond.

(Id. at 79.) Neither Plaintiffs nor Stein objected to the Recommendation. (See Docket Entries dated Aug. 21, 2018, to Sept. 20, 2018.) The Farm Bureau, however, filed objections (see Docket Entry 59), to which it attached a proposed answer (see Docket Entry 59-1) (the “Answer”). Plaintiffs responded in opposition to the Farm Bureau's objections (see Docket Entry 61), but Stein again declined to either endorse or oppose the Farm Bureau's position (see Docket Entries dated Sept. 4, 2018, to Sept. 20, 2018 (containing no response from Stein)).

         The Court (per United States District Judge Loretta C. Biggs) “appropriately reviewed the Magistrate Judge's Recommendation and . . . made a de novo determination in accord with the Magistrate Judge's Recommendation.” (Docket Entry 62 (the “Order”) at 1.) Thus, the Court adopted the Recommendation, granted Warren's dismissal request, denied Stein's dismissal request, denied the Farm Bureau's intervention request, and issued a preliminary injunction enjoining Stein “from enforcing the Farm Act.” (Id.) Twenty-eight days later, the Farm Bureau filed the Reconsideration Motion. (See Docket Entry 64.) The following day, the Farm Bureau filed a notice of appeal from the Order to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. (See Docket Entry 66 at 1.)[3]

         II. Reconsideration Motion

         According to the Reconsideration Motion, a week after the Court issued the Order,

the North Carolina Attorney General's Office posted on its official Twitter account (@NCAGO) a photograph of Defendant Stein addressing a local labor union, with a quote from his remarks. The quote reads, “Unions provide a critical voice to the workers they represent, which benefits both employees and employers. That's why I have been fighting in the courts to protect your rights.” (Emphasis added.)

         (Docket Entry 64, ¶ 9 (emphasis in original).) That same day, the Reconsideration Motion alleges, “Stein made the exact same post to his personal Twitter account.” (Id., ¶ 10.) In the Farm Bureau's view,

Stein's recent statements and waiver of certain appellate rights have undermined the basis of this Court's Order denying [the] Farm Bureau's Motion to Intervene. He publicly stated, in both his official capacity as the Attorney General of North Carolina and in his personal capacity, that he is presently fighting in court for union rights. Moreover, shortly before making those statements he chose not to object to the [Recommendation], thereby voluntarily waiving any right to appeal certain issues raised therein and allowing the injunction of [the Farm Act]. These actions underscore that [the] Farm Bureau's interests have not been and will not be adequately represented by Defendant Stein, the only remaining defendant in this case.

(Id., ¶ 11.)[4]

         Stein filed no response to the Reconsideration Motion. (See Docket Entries dated Oct. 18, 2018, to present.) However, in response to an order scheduling a hearing on the Reconsideration Motion (see Text Order dated Nov. 26, 2018), Stein stated, in part, that

[he] disagrees with the Farm Bureau's contention that he cannot adequately defend the lawsuit and notes that he has vigorously defended the Farm Act in this lawsuit to date and intends to continue to do so as this litigation progresses. Accordingly, [Stein] continues to take no position on the Farm Bureau's motion to reconsider its motion to intervene, other than to dispute [the] Farm Bureau's characterizations of the interests of [Stein] in his official capacity.

         (Docket Entry 72 at 3 n.2; see also id. at 8 (explaining that Stein continued to “t[a]k[e] no position” on the Farm Bureau's intervention request, but “dispute[s the] Farm Bureau's mischaracterizations of [Stein's] ability to continue to adequately defend the lawsuit”).)

         In addition, Plaintiffs filed a response in opposition to the Reconsideration Motion. (See Docket Entry 69.) In particular, Plaintiffs maintain that “[t]he ‘new evidence' that the Farm Bureau presents - a tweet by Defendant Stein and Stein's strategic choice not to object to [the] Recommendation - does not provide a reason for the Court to reconsider intervention by the Farm Bureau.” (Id. at 4.) Plaintiffs further contend that “[t]he rule that the Farm Bureau urges - that adversity of interest exists any time a government defendant expresses generalized support for a non-party that shares some characteristics with the plaintiff - would be unworkable in practice, ” as it “would open the door to intervention by third parties in any case concerning a wide variety of topics and entities about which Defendant Stein has publicly spoken.” (Id. at 8-9.) Finally, Plaintiffs argue:

[T]o the extent that Defendant Stein's position in this lawsuit can be discerned from vague commitments and expressions of support contained in his speeches, the Farm Bureau need not worry about adequate representation. A video posted to the Farm Bureau's own YouTube site shows that in 2015 Defendant Stein, then a state senator and a candidate for attorney general, addressed the Farm Bureau's Annual Meeting. See Ex. 2 (also available at Introduced by a Farm Bureau representative as a “friend” of the Farm Bureau, Defendant Stein told the audience that “there is no more important industrial sector in North Carolina than agriculture.” Id. He described his close relationship with the [Farm] Bureau and pledged that, “just [as] I have sought out and benefitted from the wisdom of the Farm Bureau as a state senator, I will seek out the wisdom of the Farm Bureau as your attorney general.” Id. Defendant Stein's expressed belief in the importance of agriculture, followed by a pledge to work in collaboration with the Farm Bureau as attorney general, is similar to the language with which the Farm Bureau takes issue from Defendant Stein's 2018 tweet. Unlike the tweet, however, Stein's 2015 speech directly addresses and aligns his future political office with a would-be party to this litigation. In light of Defendant Stein's prior public statements of strong support for the Farm Bureau (amplified by the Farm Bureau on its own social media), the Court should reject the Farm Bureau's contention of adversity of interest.

         (Docket Entry 69 at 9-10 (final set of brackets in original) (citing Docket Entry 69-2).)[5]

         III. Reconsideration Motion Hearing

         Thereafter, the Court (per the undersigned) conducted a hearing on the Reconsideration Motion. (See Minute Entry dated Dec. 7, 2018.) At the hearing, the Farm Bureau “freely concede[d] that” Stein and his NC DOJ counsel “are capable of defending the [Farm Act].” (Hearing Recording at 3:37; see also id. (stating that Stein and the NC DOJ “will do a fine job of defending the law”).)[6] However, the Farm Bureau contended “that North Carolina Agriculture has a unique perspective and a unique voice” that the Farm Bureau can bring to the litigation, explaining that it “would like to work with the Attorney General's Office to kind of bring to their defense [the Farm Bureau's] unique perspective and abilities.” (Id. at 2:50-51.) Although it acknowledged that it did not need party status to achieve those ends, the Farm Bureau lamented that as a non-party, it “can't file motions, [it] can't participate in discovery, [and it] can't appeal an adverse ruling.” (Id. at 2:54.) In the Farm Bureau's view, its knowledge of the agriculture industry would enable it to engage in more effective discovery than Stein, although it might not involve any different witnesses. (See id. at 2:57-3:00.)

         The Farm Bureau also conceded that (1) it “ha[s] no reason to believe that the Attorney General's Office wouldn't take [its] call and [(2) it] ha[s] no concerns with the[] abilities or the[] motivations [of that Office].” (Id. at 3:00.) Nevertheless, although the Farm Bureau did not believe that “anything untoward” occurred regarding Stein's statement, the Farm Bureau's “position was, if the Attorney General's Office is fighting in court for union rights, who's fighting in court for North Carolina farmers' rights, ” as “in this particular case, those two things are arguably opposed.” (Id. at 2:49.) The Farm Bureau further expressed concern that “the policy position announced on behalf of the North Carolina Department of Justice . . . may limit the Attorney General's Office going forward. If they have a tough choice to make or a close call to ...

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