Sixth Circuit Affirms Expansive Remedies for Undocumented Workers

In a follow-up to its previous decision in Torres v. Precision Industries, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld a lower court’s finding that an undocumented worker who was fired because he filed a workers’ compensation claim was entitled to compensatory and punitive damages, as well as partial back pay, as remedies for his wrongful termination.  Legal Aid at Work filed a second appellate amicus brief in support of the plaintiff, arguing that federal immigration law does not deprive undocumented workers of state law protections against retaliatory employer actions.  The Sixth Circuit again agreed with LAAW’s analysis. 

Precision Industries, a manufacturer of torque converters for automatic transmissions, hired Ricardo Torres in 2011 without using an I-9 form to verify his authorization to work in the United States, as it was legally required to do.  After he was injured on the job, Mr. Torres sought to file a workers’ compensation claim, but Precision fired him.  The district court found that Precision’s production manager told Mr. Torres to “get the **** out of here . . . You know very well why. Get your **** together and get out.”  Mr. Torres then brought a Tennessee state law claim for retaliatory discharge against Precision. 

Although the district court initially dismissed Mr. Torres’s case, reasoning that the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) pre-empted his Tennessee state law claim “because it arose from an illegal employment relationship,” it reversed its position after the Sixth Circuit ordered it to first determine whether Precision had violated the Tennessee law.  After the district court found on remand that Precision had indeed broken the law, Precision then filed its own appeal to the Sixth Circuit. 

In its second, April 22, 2021 decision, the Sixth Circuit rejected the argument that federal immigration law prevented Mr. Torres from receiving monetary remedies for his wrongful termination.  Instead, it upheld Tennessee’s law because, as the Supreme Court has stated, “States possess broad authority under their police powers to regulate the employment relationship to protect workers within the State.”  Because Mr. Torres’ awards of compensatory and punitive damages were in no way dependent on his immigration status, the Sixth Circuit found they did not conflict with federal immigration law.  The Torres court also awarded him backpay arising from the time after Mr. Torres became work authorized. 

“The Sixth Circuit decision is a significant victory for Mr. Torres and undocumented workers across the country who face retaliation when they assert their workplace rights,” said LAAW senior staff attorney Marisa Díaz, who was the primary author of LAAW’s amicus brief on the second Torres appeal. “A worker’s immigration status should not determine the remedies to which they are entitled. Thanks to Mr. Torres’s efforts, the Sixth Circuit confirmed that undocumented workers are entitled to important monetary remedies when their rights are violated.” 

LAAW represented a broad coalition of more than 20 regional immigrant rights advocates appearing as amici curiae, including the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition and Latino Memphis. The case is Torres v. Precision Indus., Inc., 995 F.3d 485 (6th Cir. 2021).

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