California court allows undocumented worker to claim disability discrimination

California is home to approximately one-quarter of the nation's population of immigrants in the U.S. without legal documentation. Most of these immigrants find work of some sort; According to the Pew Research Center, over 5 percent of the U.S. workforce is comprised of undocumented workers. Many such workers find employment by using false Social Security numbers and other documentation.

In California, an employer cannot legally employ a worker who does not have legal status to live and work in the U.S. This can create a tricky interplay between federal immigration law and workers' rights under California state law when a worker falsifies legal papers in order to work.

In 2002 the California legislature passed a bill that provided undocumented workers "all protections" to workers available under state and federal law. The purpose of the law is to protect undocumented workers and prevent companies in the state from saving money by hiring undocumented workers and then subsequently violating labor laws.

On June 27 the state Supreme Court weighed in on the issue of whether a worker without legal documentation could recover in a disability lawsuit.

Salas v. Sierra Chemical Company

The case, Salas v. Sierra Chemical Company, arose when a seasonal worker falsified a Social Security number, resident alien card and an I-9 Immigration and Naturalization form in order to get hired by a chemical treatment water company. The worker, Salas, became injured when lifting boxes on the company's production line. Initially the company allowed Salas to work "light duty" shifts, which complied with state disability laws that holds employers must provide reasonable accommodations to disabled workers. However, as Salas continued to have back problems and filed a workers' compensation claim, the company let him go. Salas subsequently filed a disability discrimination suit.

The company learned of his falsified documentation during discovery (the period of a case when each side prepares for trial). It introduced an affidavit to the trial court from a man in North Carolina which stated the Social Security number was his. The Sierra Chemical Company argued that the lawsuit could not move forward since Salas was undocumented. The trial court disagreed and held the lawsuit would continue. However, the Sierra Chemical Company appealed and the Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit. Salas then appealed to the state's highest court.

The decision

The California Supreme Court held that undocumented workers can recover in a suit for retaliation and discrimination against their employers. However, the court ruled that an undocumented worker could only recover back pay for the time in which the company did not know that the worker was not able to legally work in the U.S. Once the company found out the employer was undocumented, it could no longer legally employ the worker; as such, there could be no discrimination suit after the discovery of the employee's legal status.

The ruling was a compromise between labor laws and federal immigration laws. For Salas, it means he can go to trial to recover backpay, but not reinstatement to his former position. For employers and employees involved in an employment law dispute, the case is an excellent example of the complicated nature of employment law in California.

Employees and employers concerned about an employment law dispute should contact Watkins and Letofsky to discuss their situation.