The California Supreme Court issued a recent ruling that brightens the spotlight on the rights of undocumented workers to seek recovery for their employers’ violations of the state’s employment laws, including the Fair Employment and Housing Act. The court’s decision stated that federal immigration law did not prevent the enforcement of a state law giving all workers, including undocumented workers, the right to sue in cases of discrimination, retaliation, wrongful termination and other employment law violations.
Mr. Salas was a production-line worker for Sierra Chemical Co. in 2006 when he was injured at work. Twice, Salas hurt his back stacking crates. After the second injury, Salas filed a workers’ compensation claim. Sierra laid Salas off that December.
After Sierra declined to rehire Salas the next year, the worker sued his former employer for violating the FEHA. Salas claimed that he was disabled and that Sierra failed to accommodate his disability, and that the employer discriminated against him in retaliation for his filing the workers’ comp claim.
At trial, Sierra sought (and received) an order of summary judgment because Salas was an undocumented immigrant and had used another man’s social security number in his job application. The California Court of Appeal agreed with the lower court’s decision to throw out the worker’s case.
The Supreme Court reversed those ruling, though. The court pointed out that California statutory law, codified at Cal. Gov. Code Section 7285, gave all workers the right to seek recovery for violations of the state’s employment laws, including the FEHA. The court rejected the notion that federal immigration preempted the enforcement of Section 7285. Refusing to permit undocumented workers to seek recovery under laws like Section 7285 for misconduct such as unlawful discharge, discrimination and retaliation would create immunity for employers in all cases where the victims of their illegal conduct were unauthorized workers.
The court also rejected the employer’s after-discovered evidence argument. The principle of after-discovered evidence states that, if the employer discovers a valid basis for termination after its improperly-based decision to terminate, then the termination of the employee is legally permissible. Sierra’s discovery of the false social security number was not enough warrant a decision at the summary judgment phase that the firing was legally acceptable, because Salas offered evidence that Sierra told its employees that it was willing to overlook their immigration status if the quality of their work remained high. If Sierra willfully turned a blind eye to Salas’s illegal status, it could not then use his status as a valid justification.
Additionally, the ruling stated that the defense of unclean hands, which means that the person filing suit has acted in bad faith or otherwise improperly, could potentially apply to Salas’s case, but could not justify throwing out his case. An unclean hands defense could be relevant when the trial court considers the employee’s damages, but could not entirely defeat an employee’s lawsuit based upon a public policy laid out in a state statute.
California’s employment laws, such as the FEHA, serve an important purpose, in that they protect all workers from discrimination, harassment and other employer misconduct. If you’ve suffered discrimination, harassment or wrongful termination, regardless of your immigration status, consult the Oakland employment law attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our employment law attorneys can help you navigate the legal system to get the recovery you deserve. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-1073 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.
More Blog Posts:
Employee’s Own Words Doom Job Duties Dispute in Discrimination Case, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, June 30, 2014
Employee Allowed to Pursue Sexual Harassment Case, Despite Language in Job Application, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, April 30, 2014