Client News Briefs

Employee's Immigration Status Does Not Bar Claims of Employment Discrimination, But Does Limit Recovery

July 2014
Number 37

In Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co. (June 26, 2014) __ Cal.4th __ 2014 WL 2883878, the California Supreme Court recently held that federal immigration law did not prevent unauthorized alien workers from bringing discrimination claims under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) (Gov. Code, §§ 12940, et seq.), but did limit their ability to recover damages if they were unauthorized to work in the United States.

In 2003, Vicente Salas applied for a job with Sierra Chemical (Sierra) and provided his employer with a false social security number. In late 2004 or early 2005, Mr. Salas received a letter from the Social Security Department stating that his social security number did not match his name. Later in 2006, Mr. Salas injured his back and returned to work with modified duty. Mr. Salas filed a workers' compensation claim but continued to work with modified duties until late 2006 when he was laid off during Sierra's seasonal reduction of workers. On May 1, 2007, Mr. Salas was notified that Sierra was recalling laid-off employees and he could return with a note from his doctor releasing him back to full duty. Mr. Salas never returned to work.

In August 2007, Mr. Salas sued Sierra under FEHA claiming that Sierra discriminated against him based on his disability and failed to accommodate his disability. Mr. Salas also alleged that Sierra wrongfully denied him employment by retaliating against him for filing a workers' compensation claim. Mr. Salas sought lost wages, compensatory damages for emotional distress, punitive damages, and attorneys' fees.

Sierra argued that Mr. Salas was barred from bringing the lawsuit under the doctrines of after-acquired evidence and unclean hands because Mr. Salas fraudulently used another person's social security number when obtaining employment with Sierra. The doctrine of after-acquired evidence refers to when an employer discovers information that would have justified lawful termination or refusal to hire after the individual claims that he or she was wrongfully discharged or not hired. The unclean hands doctrine provides that a plaintiff's bad faith conduct should not permit him or her to obtain relief.

The federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) requires an employer to verify the identity and work eligibility of new employees and terminate any employee who is unauthorized to work in the United States. IRCA also subjects workers who use false documents to gain employment to civil fines and criminal prosecution. California's Senate Bill (SB) 1818, however, states that state law protections, rights and remedies are available to all individuals regardless of immigration status. (Code of Civ. Pro., § 3339, Gov. Code, § 7285 et seq., Health and Safety Code, § 24000 et seq., Lab. Code, § 1171.5.)

The California Supreme Court considered whether SB 1818 was preempted by IRCA in private actions for damages under FEHA. The court determined IRCA did not completely preempt SB 1818, but found that IRCA did limit remedies available to employees who prevail in a private action against their employer under FEHA. Because IRCA prohibits an employer from continuing to employ a person whose immigration status renders the individual ineligible to work, any state law that "compensates an unauthorized alien worker for loss of employment during the post-discovery period directly conflicts with [IRCA]." Therefore, federal law does not allow an unauthorized alien worker to receive lost pay awards under FEHA for the period after the employer discovers that the employee is ineligible to work in the United States.

The court explained, however, that pay awards for the "prediscovery period" do not directly conflict with IRCA. "Although immigration law prohibits an unauthorized alien's use of any false documents to get a job, that law does not prohibit an employer from paying, or an employee from receiving, wages earned during employment wrongfully obtained by false documents, so long as the employer remains unaware of the employee's unauthorized status."

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As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.