December 2, 2022
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Houweling sued over workers’ comp claims from Camarillo greenhouse

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The former owner of Houweling’s Tomatoes in Camarillo is being sued by the California Agricultural Network, which claims Casey Houweling and his company left the insurance network “holding the bag” for more than $3 million in workers’ compensation claims.

In a suit filed Oct. 19 in Ventura County Superior Court, the California Agricultural Network accused Houweling of breach of contract, fraud and other violations. Houweling, the suit claims, engaged in “egregious self-dealing” when his company sold its 160-acre Camarillo-area greenhouse property to a cannabis grower last year.

He is named as a defendant along with Longvine California, a corporate entity formerly known as Houweling Nurseries Oxnard. Houweling’s U.S. holdings rebranded as Longvine starting in 2020, as the Houweling family left the company. 

Houweling told the Business Times that while he was involved in the sale of the Camarillo property, he was not involved in the laying off the workforce, or workers’ compensation claims, or any other operational matters.

“Longvine was operating the business,” he said. “It had nothing to do with me.”

Houweling said he ceased dealings with Longvine four years ago, in 2018, and said the matters in the lawsuit are a “non-issue.”

The California Ag Network was founded in 2004 and is a non-profit, self-insured group, meaning that it is a collection of self-insured employers in the agricultural industry.

Casey Houweling in the Camarillo-area tomato greenhouses his company once owned. (file photo)

The goal of these groups is to pool together worker’s compensation liabilities as a collective.

Howling’s Nurseries Oxnard became a member of the network in 2006, and remained a member until October 2021, according to the lawsuit.

The suit claims that beginning in 2019, Houweling began a series of transactions in which his ownership of the nurseries was greatly reduced and transferred to Longvine California.

By 2021, Houweling had transferred 100% ownership to Longvine, and never informed the California Agricultural Network or reported it to the California Office of Self-Insurance Plans, which the network said in its lawsuit is a violation of state law.

“The defendants were required to report the structural/ownership changes … so that CAN and its members could evaluate whether the structured reorganization was suitable to remain a self-insured member of CAN,” the network stated in its lawsuit.

The suit alleges that Houweling and Longview did not report these changes because they no longer had “the financial strength or suitable member to remain a member of CAN.”

The Houweling’s Tomatoes property in Camarillo was sold in September 2021 to Glass House Group, a publicly traded cannabis company with other greenhouses in Santa Barbara County. Glass House paid around $93 million and has converted part of the space into cannabis greenhouses.

In its lawsuit, the California Agricultural Network claims that Houweling and Longvine sold the facility because they “could no longer remain in business.”

Houweling said he did sell the property because it wasn’t performing as well as he thought it would, but not for any other reason.

For now, Glass House has split the Camarillo facility into cannabis and tomatoes, and has said that if cannabis becomes legal at the federal level, it will devote all 5.5 million square feet to cannabis.

Houweling’s closed its tomato and cucumber operation and began laying off its 486 employees in August 2021, after Glass House agreed to buy the property.

According to the lawsuit from the California Agricultural Network, more than 100 of those employees filed workers’ compensation claims after being laid off. Houweling and Longview, the lawsuit claims, “failed to take even minimal steps to prevent or minimize post-termination claims by laid off workers, a foreseeable and often avoidable consequence of any business shutdown.” The multitude of claims, the insurance network said, was the result of “a poor job with the business’s closure,” and could be the result of “negligence or active encouragement.”

Because Houweling’s Nurseries Oxnard had ceased its membership with the California Agricultural Network by the time those claims came, the insurance network says it was left to pay the claims, which total more than $3 million.

Since leaving CAN and selling the facility, Houweling has started a new company to farm tomatoes in the greenhouses sold to Glass House, the lawsuit states. That company, Houweling’s Camarillo, has hired back many of the laid-off employees, the suit states.

The California Agricultural Network is seeking compensatory damages plus interest on the $3 million that it says it has paid in claims, as well as punitive damages. The network is being represented by Roxborough, Pomerance, Nye & Adreani, a firm in Los Angeles.