Court Upholds Workers’ Comp Judgment for Undocumented Worker

By Jeffrey Rhodes June 23, 2021
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An undocumented worker can recover compensatory, emotional distress and punitive damages against his employer for firing him in retaliation for seeking workers' compensation, but can recover only limited back pay, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

The plaintiff worked for Precision Industries, a manufacturing company in Tennessee, from January 2011 until he was fired in September 2012. He was not legally authorized to work in the United States during this period, but he obtained work authorization about five months after his termination. Precision did not learn of his unauthorized status during his employment. He had listed a fake Social Security number on a tax form when he started the job.

In May 2012, the plaintiff injured his back at work. He reported the injury to Precision's safety manager, who scheduled a doctor's appointment for later that day. A week later, the plaintiff returned to work but the pain got worse. The safety manager did not schedule a new doctor's appointment, so the plaintiff scheduled his own and presented Precision with the doctor's bill.

Precision would not pay, so the plaintiff hired a lawyer to pursue a workers' compensation claim. When the lawyer contacted Precision, the safety manager said the plaintiff's claim was closed and ended the call. Immediately after, the safety manager and the plaintiff's supervisor confronted the plaintiff. The plaintiff recorded the conversation. On the recording, the safety manager threatened to physically assault the plaintiff.

The supervisor yelled at the plaintiff in a profanity-laced diatribe in which he questioned the plaintiff for getting a lawyer involved and threatened him, stating that the plaintiff would be in a "world of hurt" once the company owner and president learned about it. The supervisor then called the company owner and recommended that he fire the plaintiff. The owner agreed, and the supervisor fired the plaintiff immediately after their call. The owner did not know that the plaintiff was pursuing a workers' compensation claim.

The plaintiff sued, claiming that Precision violated Tennessee law by firing him in retaliation for making a workers' compensation claim. At a bench trial, Precision argued that the plaintiff could not recover damages because he was an undocumented worker. The district court agreed, holding that the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) precluded the plaintiff's state law retaliation claim.

The plaintiff appealed the decision to the 6th Circuit, and the 6th Circuit reversed the decision, ruling that the district court should have first decided whether Precision was liable before determining what damages were available.

After the case was sent back to the district court, it found Precision liable for retaliatory discharge and ruled that federal law did not pre-empt a damage award. The court awarded the plaintiff back pay of $45,708.42, emotional distress damages of $1,000 and punitive damages of $50,000. Precision appealed to the 6th Circuit.

On appeal, the 6th Circuit considered the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hoffman Plastic Compounds Inc. v. NLRB that IRCA pre-empted the National Labor Relations Act concerning the availability of a back-pay remedy for an undocumented worker. The 6th Circuit determined that while IRCA prohibits the hiring and continued employment of such an individual, it does not occupy the entire field of state employment laws concerning undocumented workers.

Rather, IRCA only presented a conflict with Tennessee's employment laws with respect to the remedy of awarding an undocumented worker back pay for a violation of these laws. The 6th Circuit further determined that Hoffman prohibited only an award of back pay while the worker did not have proper documentation.

In this case, the plaintiff obtained proper documentation five months after his firing, in March 2013. As a result, the 6th Circuit reduced his back-pay award for two months when he could not legally work in the United States. This reduced his back pay by $4,160. However, the court did not adjust his compensatory damage or punitive damage awards, as Hoffman did not require it.

Thus the 6th Circuit upheld the plaintiff's judgment with a $4,160 reduction in his back pay.

Torres v. Precision Industries Inc., 6th Cir., No. 20-5492 (April 22, 2021).

Professional Pointer: Employers that discover a suing employee lacked legal immigration status often hope that this will constitute a complete defense to liability. As this case shows, the fact of undocumented status usually does not bar a claim, and may only reduce liability slightly, if at all.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with McInroy, Rigby & Rhodes LLP in Arlington, Va.

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