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Courts Allow Undocumented Immigrants to Sue for Wages Under FLSA, State Labor Laws

1099_14th_Street_-_National_Labor_Relations_Board_-_sign.JPGEmployers are legally prohibited from employing immigrants who lack work authorization, but many businesses and individuals employ undocumented immigrants in a variety of capacities. People who work under these circumstances may feel that they have no rights or recourse if their employer subjects them to unfair conditions, and a Supreme Court decision from just over a decade ago suggests that state and federal labor laws do not protect them. Two recent federal appellate court decisions, however, have held that some federal labor laws apply regardless of immigration status. A 2006 decision from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers New York, held that state labor laws may protect undocumented immigrants under some circumstances.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed an order from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) awarding backpay to an undocumented immigrant in Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. NLRB, 535 U.S. 137 (2002). The court held that the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) prohibited the employment of immigrants who lacked official work authorization, and that this precluded them from any relief under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Id. at 151-52. It noted, however, that the NLRB could still penalize the employer for NLRA violations arising from its treatment of unauthorized immigrant employees.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals cited Hoffman in a decision that declined to enforce an NLRB ruling against an employer. NLRB v. Domsey Trading Corp., 636 F.3d 33 (2nd Cir. 2011). The court held that Hoffman prevented recovery of backpay by immigrants without work authorization under the NLRA. A decision from a Pennsylvania court, which is part of the Third Circuit covering New Jersey, reached a similar conclusion in Lozano v. City of Hazelton, 496 F.Supp.2d 477, 523 (M.D. Penn. 2007).

An earlier decision by the Second Circuit, however, held that unauthorized immigrant workers may recover damages under New York labor laws. Madeira v. Affordable Housing Foundation, 469 F.3d 219 (2nd Cir. 2006). The court identified three factors that allowed application of state labor law: the damages were for personal injury, and therefore not in conflict with IRCA; the employer, not the employee, was in violation of IRCA; and the jury could consider the worker’s immigration status when deciding on damages. Id. at 228.

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed a judgment awarding unpaid wages and other damages to an undocumented immigrant under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Lamonica v. Safe Hurricane Shutters, Inc., No. 11-15743, slip op. (11th Cir., Mar. 6, 2013). It distinguished the case from Hoffman, in part, by noting the differences between the FLSA and the NLRA. The NLRA grants broad discretion to the NLRB and the courts to determine remedies for employees, but the court held that the FLSA grants no such discretion. The employee’s immigration status therefore did not affect his FLSA rights. The Eighth Circuit made a similar ruling, holding that the FLSA “does not allow employers to exploit any employee’s immigration status or to profit from hiring unauthorized aliens in violation of federal law.” Lucas v. Jerusalem Cafe, LLC, No. 12-2170, slip op. at 2 (8th Cir., Jul. 29, 2013).

Immigration attorney Samuel C. Berger represents businesses who want to petition for prospective immigrant employees, so they can come to the U.S. and work. We also help immigrants, prospective immigrants, and families of prospective immigrants seeking visas to come to the New York or New Jersey areas. To schedule a confidential consultation to see how we may assist you, please contact us today online or at (212) 380-8117.

More Blog Posts:

Employers Must Completely Fill Out I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification Forms or Risk Penalties, According to Court, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, December 3, 2013
Federal Court Blocks City Ordinance That Penalizes Businesses Employing Undocumented Workers, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, November 5, 2013
Immigration Authorities Raid New York Convenience Stores for Alleged Employment Violations, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, June 27, 2013
Photo credit: By Geraldshields11 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.