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Study: Courts ignore immigration status in work-related lawsuits

2002 Supreme Court case portended otherwise
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Courts usually disregard the immigration status of illegal immigrants who sue their former employers for workplace violations, says a new, unpublished study out of the University of Illinois.

That's despite the 2002 Supreme Court case Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board, where the court ruled that the NLRB couldn't order back pay for an illegal immigrant who was fired for supporting a union.

The four dissenting justices said then that the ruling would let employers violate labor laws without consequence, and that would encourage more hiring of illegal immigrants. But the study, by Michael LeRoy, a professor of law and of labor and employment relations, found that despite that ruling, courts have mostly not let immigration status preclude judgments in favor of plaintiffs.

LeRoy looked at 128 cases since 2002 where employers cited the Hoffman Plastic case as reason to deny monetary rewards to illegal immigrants. The immigrant plaintiffs won nearly 70 percent of the cases, and they partially won another 9 percent.

About half of the cases dealt with work-related injuries, including wrongful-death accusations. One-third involved pay disputes, and the rest involved termination, work conditions, discrimination or other matters.

Only in 5 percent of the cases did the court find a violation of employment law and then deny a monetary award because of the plaintiff's immigration status, as the Supreme Court did in the Hoffman Plastic case.

The reasons that courts ruled in favor of illegal immigrants varied. Some, for example, said that worker's compensation laws didn't distinguish between those employed legally and illegally. Some said immigration status was not relevant to the case or the cause of the injury.

As it considers comprehensive immigration reform, Congress may choose to clarify whether or not illegal immigrants qualify for monetary relief in work-related lawsuits, Leroy notes.

In his view, though, a case-by-case approach is better than legislation, "given the deep complexity and wild variations in these Hoffman Plastic situations." Sometimes, both the employee and employer violated immigration law, sometimes only the employee did, and sometimes the employee violated another law, for example by stealing someone's identity.

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