A California appellate court issued a groundbreaking ruling on Friday, August 26, 2022, that dealt a significant blow to California employers’ illegal attempts to use the civil discovery process to quell immigrant workers’ labor and employment rights. In doing so, the decision will help safeguard the ability of all persons to assert their workplace rights under California law.
In the case, Manuel v. Superior Court of Santa Clara County, Rigoberto Jose Manuel, an irrigation technician formerly employed by BrightView Landscaping Services, alleged BrightView unlawfully fired him after he was injured on the job. During discovery, BrightView sought irrelevant and intrusive information about Mr. Manuel’s immigration status, broadly claiming that the information was essential to defending itself.
In its ruling, the Court of Appeal for the Sixth Appellate District found the trial court had erroneously permitted Brightview’s discovery. The Court of Appeal made clear immigration-status discovery is allowed only where an employer has demonstrated by “clear and convincing evidence that the discovery is necessary . . . because the plaintiff seeks remedies necessarily in violation of federal immigration law, such as reinstatement or post-discovery backpay.” That was not so in Mr. Manuel’s case. This means that, under California law, an employer cannot seek any immigration-status information from an employee in relation to its potential liability under the state’s labor and employment laws.
Legal Aid at Work, joining the appellate case as counsel on behalf of a broad coalition of fourteen amici curiae worker advocacy organizations, argued that California law prohibited Brightview’s discovery and that such discovery, if allowed, would be one more tool in employers’ arsenal to intimidate immigrant workers when they bravely decided to assert their rights. As numerous courts have recognized, and LAAW’s experience has illustrated, employers all too often use workers’ immigration status to retaliate against them and chill the enforcement of essential workplace rights. Thanks to the Sixth District’s decision, this retaliation tactic just became more difficult.
“We applaud Mr. Manuel for his decision to step forward and to secure this landmark decision barring employers from using the civil discovery process as a pretext for immigration-related retaliation,” said LAAW Senior Staff Attorney Marisa Díaz, who (with LAAW Staff Attorney Laura Alvarenga Scalia) co-authored the coalition’s amicus brief and argued the case before the Court of Appeal. “Although there is always more work to be done, this decision provides an important tool to protect immigrant workers from the type of retaliation that so often prevents them from accessing justice through the courts.”
The opinion in Manuel bolsters the ability of the millions of immigrant workers in California to assert the rights California law provides them. Although immigration-related retaliation can deter all immigrant workers from coming forward, it is especially harmful to those who are undocumented. Nearly one in ten workers in California is an undocumented immigrant; they are concentrated in some of the most dangerous occupations, such as agriculture and construction. Despite having essentially the same rights all other California workers enjoy, undocumented workers often face exploitative and dangerous working conditions. To ensure the universal enforcement of workplace rights across California, it is imperative that immigrant workers can come forward without fear to assert their rights. Legal Aid at Work will continue to advocate for and alongside immigrant workers to ensure all workers’ rights are protected.