Sunday, June 29, 2014

California Supreme Court Finds that Labor Protections for Undocumented Workers not Preempted by Federal Law

Earlier this week, in Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co, the California Supreme Court addressed an importrant question concerning the legal right sof undocumented workers.  For a discussion of the case, see Bryan Schwartz Law.

The Court settled the question whether the doctrines of unclean hands and after-acquired evidence, which focus on employee misconduct to limit employer relief, stand as a complete bar to relief for undocumented workers who bring claims under California’s employment and labor laws. The plaintiff, Vicente Salas, was a seasonal worker for the defendant. He was injured while stacking crates in defendant’s production line and had to be taken to the hospital on two separate occasions. After filing a Worker’s Compensation claim, he was laid off and not re-hired because of his disability, in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). After Salas brought claims for failure to accommodate and retaliation, the defendant moved for summary judgment. The trial court denied summary judgment, but the Court of Appeal reversed, reasoning that plaintiff’s undocumented status barred him from relief under the doctrines of unclean hands and after-acquired evidence. 

The history and applicability of the unclean hands and after-acquired evidence doctrines in California date back to a Supreme Court ruling in McKennon v. Nashville Banner Publishing Co. (1995) 513 U.S. 352 (the unclean hands doctrine does not apply where a private suit serves important private purposes, but after-acquired evidence doctrine provides a partial defense for backpay). A subsequent California Court of Appeal decision misapplied the McKcennon rule. See Camp v. Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro (1995) 35 Cal. App. 4th 620 (unclean hands and after-acquired evidence doctrines are a complete defense). The California Legislature stepped in, in 2002, by enacting Senate Bill 1818, which extended employment and labor protections to all workers regardless of immigration status.

The California Supreme Court, in an opinion by (retired) Justice Kennard (and joined by Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Werdegar, Corrigan, and Liu) held that that Senate Bill 1818, which extends state law protections and remedies to all workers “regardless of immigration status,” is not preempted by the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 except to the extent it authorizes an award of lost pay damages for any period after the employer discovers the employee’s inability to work in the United States.   The Court further held that that the unclean hands and after-acquired evidence doctrines are not complete defenses to a worker’s claims under the FEHA, though they do affect the availability of remedies. 

Concluding that much of the state law was preempted, Justice Baxter, joined by Justice Chin, concurred in part and dissented in part.

UPDATE (July 7):  The Workplace Prof Blog describes the opinion (here) and provides commentary on the impact of the preemption ruling in the case (here).


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