Politics & Government

Uncle Sam took this farmer's raisins, and now he wants his money

A tray of freshly picked grapes dries on a paper tray on Aug. 30, 2013 near Dinuba, Calif.
A tray of freshly picked grapes dries on a paper tray on Aug. 30, 2013 near Dinuba, Calif. Fresno Bee Staff

A raisin producer in California’s San Joaquin Valley can keep seeking compensation for portions of a crop turned over to a marketing order years ago, under a new court ruling.

In a fight that now turns on the Fifth Amendment, a U.S. Court of Federal Claims judge ruled that Lion Farms can continue its “takings” case and rejected Justice Department arguments that the statute of limitations had expired.

“This analysis is incorrect,” Judge Loren A. Smith said of the government’s reasoning in a five-page decision issued Tuesday.

Represented by Washington-based attorney James A. Moody, who has been part of a team litigating against various marketing orders for several decades, Lion Farms argues the government owes it money for the raisins surrendered from 2006 to 2010.

The raisins were part of a “reserve” established by the Raisin Administrative Committee, an industry group that oversees one of the marketing orders authorized by Congress. In October during the years in question, the committee required raisin handlers to set aside a certain percentage of their raisins as reserve tonnage. This would help stabilize the market.

In a 2015 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in a case brought by Fresno County grower Marvin Horne and other dissidents that the government must pay for raisins kept out of the marketplace. The decision in Marvin Horne’s case, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., applied the Fifth Amendment, which states that private property cannot be taken “for public use without just compensation.”

Lion Farms, which is likewise in Fresno County, sought payment through its claims court lawsuit, filed several months after last year’s Supreme Court decision. Lion Farms grows the raisins and delivers the crop to the handlers, who had to abide by the reserve requirement.

The Raisin Administrative Committee has not recommended volume regulation through use of a reserve in recent years.

In his ruling, Smith noted that a six-year statute of limitation applied to takings claims. The Justice Department argued this blocked a suit filed in 2015 from seeking compensation for takings from the 2006-07, 2007-08 and 2008-09 crop years. While not buying every argument made by Lion Farms, Smith nonetheless reasoned that the clock didn’t really start ticking until 2015 because “it was not until the decision in Horne that plaintiff’s claims were legally defensible.”

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10