Salas v. Sierra Chemical: California Supreme Court Upholds Undocumented Immigrants’ Rights to Bring Suit Under State Laws

Salas v. Sierra Chemical: California Supreme Court Upholds Undocumented Immigrants’ Rights to Bring Suit Under State Laws

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court decided Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co., affirming that the protections of California employment law are available to undocumented immigrants.

In 2002, the California Legislature enacted Senate Bill 1818 in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. NLRB limiting the ability of undocumented employees fired in violation of federal labor law to be reinstated to their jobs and get back pay. The purpose of SB 1818 was to ensure that, after Hoffman Plastics, undocumented workers still had the broadest permissible access to all the rights and remedies provided by California law. SB 1818 provides 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.” Cal. Lab. Code § 1171.5.

Undocumented Workers Need Protection

The story of Vincente Salas, the plaintiff in Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co. illustrates the importance of this protection for undocumented workers. Sierra Chemical Company, where Salas worked, makes and sells chemicals for treating water, primarily swimming pools. Because there is less demand for swimming pool chemicals when the weather is cool, the company lays off many of its workers in the fall and recalls them to work in the spring. One day, after he had been working for Sierra Chemical for a couple of years, Mr. Salas hurt his back while stacking crates on the company’s production line. Initially, the company accommodated Mr. Salas’s disability by assigning him to light duty work, but after Mr. Salas filed for workers’ compensation, it stopped doing so. In the spring, Mr. Salas’s boss told him that Sierra Chemical would not recall him to work unless he was “100% recovered” from his back injury. When Mr. Salas told his boss that he was still seeing a doctor, his boss said that Mr. Salas could not return to work “like that” and Sierra Chemical would not reinstate him unless he provided a doctor’s release showing he could return to “full duty,” without accommodations.

Mr. Salas filed a disability discrimination lawsuit against Sierra Chemical under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). In the suit, Mr. Salas claims that the company violated the law by refusing to recall him to work unless his doctor released him to full duty.

When Mr. Salas’s case was about to go to trial, Sierra Chemical gave the court a declaration signed by a man in North Carolina who claimed that the social security number Mr. Salas had used to obtain work at Sierra Chemical belonged to him. Sierra Chemical told the court that this declaration proved that Mr. Salas was undocumented and asked the court to throw out Mr. Salas’s lawsuit because the company claimed, it would never have hired Mr. Salas had it known he was undocumented.

Mr. Salas responded that the declaration did not establish that he was undocumented, and more importantly, his immigration status could not provide a basis for dismissing his case because under California law, and particularly SB 1818, he was entitled to the same workplace rights, and the same remedies for the violation of those rights, regardless of his immigration status.

The trial court agreed with Mr. Salas, but Sierra Chemical appealed. The Court of Appeal held that the affidavit proved that Mr. Salas was undocumented and that as a result, Mr. Salas was not entitled to any remedy for Sierra Chemical’s violation of his workplace rights.

The California Supreme Court

Mr. Salas took his case to the California Supreme Court, where he argued that in throwing out his case, the Court of Appeal ignored SB 1818’s reaffirmation that undocumented workers are entitled to the full protection of California employment laws, and that under longstanding legal precedent, an employer’s accusation that an employee engaged in wrongdoing could not prevent the employee from obtaining a remedies for civil rights violations by the employer.

In its decision yesterday, the California Supreme Court held that undocumented employees are entitled to pursue claims for retaliation and discrimination against their employers. The Supreme Court observed that preventing undocumented employees from seeking remedies when they are discharged due to discrimination or because they have applied for workers’ compensation would undermine the purpose of federal immigration law by making it less expensive for employers to hire undocumented immigrants than authorized workers, giving employers an incentive to violate federal law. The Court also held that an employer’s discovery that its employee was undocumented cannot provide a defense to a wrongful dismissal claim because permitting such a defense would eviscerate state law protections against discrimination and retaliation.

The Court concluded that federal law preempted SB 1818 in one very limited way: employees whose employers discover their unauthorized status after firing them or failing to rehire them may not recover lost pay for the period after the discovery, because under federal law, an employer may not knowingly continue to employ an undocumented immigrant. From a practical perspective, this ruling is unlikely to have much effect, since back pay generally is not recoverable after an employer has discovered an employee’s wrongdoing. Moreover, a separate provision of SB 1818 bars discovery into the immigration status of employees who have sued their employers for violations of labor and employment laws unless the employer can show by clear and convincing evidence that the discovery is necessary to comply with federal immigration law. See Lab. Code § 1171.5(b). This is a tough burden to carry.

Now, after years of litigation, Mr. Salas finally will get his day in court.