In an employment case with significant implications for production agriculture, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that falsely documented employees may successfully sue their employers for back wages under the state’s anti-discrimination laws. The Court held that the state Fair Employment and Housing Act is generally not preempted by federal immigration law, but that federal preemption does bar an award for lost pay damages under the FEHA for any period of time after an employer discovers the employee is ineligible under federal law to work in the United States. However, falsely documented employees may still pursue and recover damages against the employer, including post-termination back pay for the period when the employee was not authorized to work and did not actually perform work until the fraud was discovered.
The Court decision relied on SB 1818 which declares that “[a]ll protections, rights and remedies available under state law, except any reinstatement remedy prohibited by federal law, are available to all individuals regardless of immigration status who have applied for employment, or who are or who have been employed, in this state.” SB 1818 was passed in 2002 following a U.S. Supreme Court decision (Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. NLRB) that limited back pay remedies for falsely documented workers who successfully sued under the National Labor Relations Act. The California Legislature responded by enacting legislation ensuring that undocumented or falsely documented clients would be entitled to all of the monetary remedies available under California law.
The court also held that the legal doctrines of after-acquired evidence and unclean hands are not complete defenses to a worker’s claims under the FEHA, although they do affect the availability of remedies.
In this case, Vicente Salas sued his former employer, Sierra Chemical Co., under the FEHA, alleging that Sierra Chemical failed to reasonably accommodate his physical disability and refused to rehire him in retaliation for his having filed a workers’ compensation claim. Thereafter, the company obtained information suggesting that Salas had used another man’s Social Security number to gain employment with the company.
The company filed a motion to dismiss the case before trial, but the trial court denied the motion. The company then sought and won a writ from the Court of Appeal, which compelled the trial court to enter a new order granting the motion to dismiss. Salas appealed and lost in the Court of Appeal which held that Salas’ action was barred by the doctrines of after-acquired evidence and unclean hands (based on information defendant acquired during discovery showing wrongdoing by plaintiff).
Salas was granted review by the California Supreme Court which reversed the Court of Appeal and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.
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