Thursday, September 18, 2014
In early August, the Tennessee Court of Appeals decided a case of first impression, Torres v. Precision Industries, et al., No. W2014-00032-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 5, 2014), examining whether an undocumented worker can state a common law claim for wrongful discharge after being fired in retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim.
This is the most recent round in a long-running debate in both state and federal courts about the ability of undocumented workers to make claims under labor and employment law and then, if they win, to collect damages. Of interest to me are the assumptions that judges make about the incentives that their decisions in the labor/ employment arena – to recognize or deny a right, or to allow or disallow a backpay award – will create in the immigration arena.
There are two possible incentives that courts have explored. On the one hand, if undocumented workers are allowed to make labor and employment claims and collect damages on the same terms as their documented co-workers, then more people will be enticed to migrate to the United States and obtain jobs without authorization. In this view, denying rights and remedies will reduce undocumented immigration. On the other hand, if undocumented workers are less protected by labor and employment law, then unscrupulous employers will be incentivized to hire more undocumented workers precisely because their lack of rights will make them more pliable and cheaper to employ. In this view, denying rights and remedies will increase undocumented immigration.
Perhaps the most famous enunciation of these two views came in the 2002 Supreme Court case, Hoffman Plastic Compounds v. NLRB, where the Rehnquist-led majority took the former view and the Breyer-led dissenters took the latter.
The Tennessee Appeals Court has now weighed in on the side of the Hoffman dissenters, holding that “[W]e find that depriving unauthorized aliens of an avenue to bring a retaliatory discharge claim could potentially increase the incentive of employers to hire illegal workers that they could terminate if a workers' compensation claim was filed. . . It also decreases the burden on employers to provide and maintain a safe workplace, if an employer can easily escape paying workers' compensation for an injury by firing an unauthorized alien employee without consequence.”
I think that the Tennessee Appeals Court got it right. Though I would love to see some empirical research on which of these two views of workers' and employers' incentives is accurate, I find it hard to imagine that many migrants, when deciding whether to enter the United States and take work without authorization, even know about or consider the contours of their rights and remedies on the job. Also, I do not find it hard to believe that unscrupulous employers would seek out undocumented workers precisely because of their precarious legal status.
Now for the side notes:
The oral argument in the Torres case is available on the Appeals Court’s website. At the very end of the recording (around minute 31.33), one of the judges on the panel asks the plaintiff’s counsel, Steven Wilson, where he got his “nice accent.” Mr. Wilson answers, “Wales,” and some pleasant conversation ensues. It was perhaps not lost on everyone in the courtroom that immigration and immigrants were playing roles on various levels during the hearing – one wonders whether a different accent would have drawn the same comments, and how the presence of Mr. Wilson, with his accent as an obvious marker of his migrant status, influenced the judges' thinking.
And regarding labels and their power: Throughout the proceeding, Mr. Wilson refers to Mr. Torres as an “undocumented worker.” (Mr. Torres actually obtained a U visa in February 2013.) At the beginning of the defense lawyer’s argument (at around minute 14.40), he makes the seemingly tangential point that Mr. Torres should, in fact, be called an “illegal alien,” because that is the label used by Tennessee statutes and the state supreme court. Many commentators have noted the power (and inaccuracy and offensive nature) of this “illegal” label, but the defense strategy seems not to have worked in this instance, as the Torres opinion uses the terms “undocumented worker,” “unauthorized alien,” and “illegal alien” interchangeably, and ultimately sides with Mr. Torres, whatever his label.
(Thanks to my colleague Sue Willey for alerting me to the Torres case.)
-- Charlotte Alexander