Today, the California Supreme Court ruled that a worker’s immigration status does not curtail his right to be protected by the same workplace laws that cover all those who are employed in this state, including situations where the employee may have used false documents to obtain his job.
In Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co., Vicente Salas filed a civil rights lawsuit against Sierra Chemical, his former employer, alleging that it had refused to reasonably accommodate a back injury he had sustained on the job, and that it then fired him because of his disability and in retaliation for his having filed a workers’ compensation claim.
On the eve of trial, however, Sierra produced a declaration purporting to be from a person in North Carolina, who stated that s/he was the holder of the Social Security number that Mr. Salas had used to obtain his job at Sierra. Based on that declaration alone, the lower courts ruled that Mr. Salas was not authorized to work, could not pursue his discrimination claims because he had allegedly misrepresented his legal status, and threw his case out of court.
The California Supreme Court has now determined the lower courts’ decisions were in error. In so doing, the Court rightly reaffirmed a 2002 statute enacted by the California Legislature, SB 1818, which explicitly recognizes that the employment rights and remedies provided by California state law apply to all workers irrespective of their immigration status. The Court also rejected Sierra’s argument that Mr. Salas’s alleged use of a Social Security number that did not belong to him should prevent him from pursuing his discrimination claims, stating that to hold otherwise would effectively “immunize employers that, in violation of fundamental state policy,” discriminate or retaliate against workers who assert their rights against workplace injustices.
Importantly, the Court also rejected the employer’s claim that upholding state employment laws conflicted with federal immigration law, observing that permitting employers to hire and exploit immigrant workers with impunity would in fact increase undocumented immigration – contrary to Congress’s intent when, in 1986 it enacted a system of sanctions against employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers.
Christopher Ho of the Legal Aid Society – Employment Law Center, one of Mr. Salas’s attorneys and who argued the case before the Court, stated, “This is a powerful reaffirmation of our state’s overriding public policy of vigorously guarding against workplace abuses, and of the principle that immigrant workers have rights which cannot be subverted by employer defenses that would permit them to exploit workers with total impunity. Protecting the most vulnerable employees in our state’s workplaces helps to ensure that conditions for all workers are respected.”
Now, six years after he first filed suit, Mr. Salas can finally have his day in court.