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Employer Denied Discovery of Employee's Immigration Status in Wrongful Termination Claim

California's labor laws are designed to protect employees against illegal employment actions taken by their employers. These laws offer protection to employees against wrongful employment practices regardless of the employee's immigration status. In Manuel v. Superior Court of Santa Clara County , Cal. Ct. App. Case No. H048665, the Court of Appeal considered whether the trial court erred when it compelled the plaintiff to disclose his immigration status to his former employer in a wrongful termination case when he was not asking for reinstatement or post-discovery backpay.[1]

Factual and Procedural Background

Rigoberto Jose Manuel was an employee of BrightView Landscape Services, Inc. He was hired in 2007 and worked until Jan. 2018 for the company as an irrigation technician. Manuel suffered a back injury at work in Jan. 2018. When he reported his injury, BrightView refused to send him for treatment and asked him to sign a waiver for medical care. Several days later, Manuel went to a clinic with a fellow employee anyway and was diagnosed with a back injury. He was released to return to work with some restrictions. After returning to work and working for a whole shift on Jan. 18, 2018, BrightView terminated his employment with the company. Manuel filed a lawsuit alleging that the company terminated his employment in retaliation for him exercising his right to seek treatment for his work-related injuries.

Manuel's lawsuit alleged several causes of action, including wrongful termination in violation of public policy and failing to allow him to inspect his employment records. He asked for front pay and back pay, compensatory damages, attorney's fees, and civil penalties as legal remedies but did not request reinstatement.

During the course of the discovery process, BrightView sent a discovery request to Manuel to answer interrogatories about his immigration status and asked him to produce documents showing that he was legally authorized to work in the U.S. Manuel objected to the request, arguing that his immigration status was not relevant to whether BrightView was liable under the facts of the case.

BrightView then filed a motion to compel discovery, arguing that Manuel's immigration status was relevant since the company was defending against his lawsuit by arguing that Manuel voluntarily terminated his employment by not returning after the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement informed the company that he had used the identity documents of another person to gain employment. The trial court granted BrightView's motion to compel discovery. Manuel then filed a petition with the California Court of Appeal for a writ of mandate ordering the trial court to vacate its order to compel discovery.

Issue: Did the Court Err by Ordering Manuel to Answer Interrogatories and Produce Documents About His Immigration Status in Response to Brightview's Discovery Request?

On appeal, the court considered whether the trial court's order compelling Manuel to answer the interrogatories and produce documents about his immigration status was erroneous. BrightView contended that the court's order was not made in error since Manuel's immigration status was a part of its defense against his wrongful termination lawsuit.

Rule: Writ Review Is Proper When the Petitioner Requests the Court of Appeal to Provide Relief From an Order That Would Force the Petition to Disclose Private or Privileged Information

Manuel contended that a writ of mandate was appropriate under 2002 Senate Bill 1818, which was enacted to provide all employees in California with the same rights and remedies under the state's labor code regardless of immigration status.[2] BrightView argued that it was entitled to discovery of Manuel's immigration status since it was defending against his wrongful termination  lawsuit by claiming that he voluntarily quit his employment after ICE informed the company that he used another person's identity documents to obtain employment.[3]

Analysis

While employers can terminate statutory employees who work at will at any time and for any reason, they can't terminate employees for unlawful reasons. One type of unlawful reason for terminating an employee is in retaliation  for the employee exercising their protected employee rights.[4]

On the petition for a writ of mandate, the court first determined that a writ review was warranted in the case since Manuel was asking for relief from the court's order compelling him to disclose his immigration status in violation of his privacy rights. It then considered whether the order was erroneous. Manuel argued that being forced to disclose his immigration status was in violation of Senate Bill 1818.

The California Legislature enacted SB 1818 in 2002 following the decision by the Supreme Court of the United States in Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. NLRB , 535U.s. 137 (2002).[5] In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the NLRB could not order an employer to pay back pay to an undocumented immigrant for years of work that he had not performed because doing so would be in violation of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).

In Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co. , 59 Cal.4th 407 (2014), the California Supreme Court held that IRCA preempted the portions of Senate Bill 1818 that would make post-discovery lost pay awards available to undocumented immigrants.[6] However, the court found that the provisions that would allow an undocumented immigrant to seek lost pay for wages during the period before the employer discovered the employee's unauthorized employment status were not preempted. The court reasoned that prohibiting employees from seeking compensation for the pre-discovery period would encourage employers to hire undocumented immigrants and violate the state's labor laws because they could do so more cheaply and without fear of consequences for violating the state's laws.

The Court of Appeal then considered Cal. Lab. Code 1171.5.[7] It noted that the reason the legislature enacted this law was to protect undocumented immigrants from unlawful labor practices by employers. It then considered whether the discovery request about Manuel's immigration status sent by BrightView violated this law. It noted that the remedies available in the law are available to all employees regardless of their immigration status. Because the remedies for an employer's violation of the state's labor laws are available no matter whether an employee is legally authorized to work in the U.S., the court found that an inquiry about Manuel's immigration status was not relevant to BrightView's potential liability.

Manuel argued that the trial court abused its discretion by compelling him to comply with BrightView's discovery request about his immigration status. He argued that he didn't ask to be reinstated to his job or for lost wages. The Court of Appeal noted that BrightView did not argue that Manuel was asking for reinstatement or for post-discovery backpay. Consequently, its discovery request was prohibited by Senate Bill 1818.

BrightView argued that it needed the discovery of Manuel's immigration status as an element of its defense against his wrongful termination causes of action. However, the court noted that the California Supreme Court's decision in Salas  found that an employee's undocumented status was not a complete defense to a wrongful termination complaint.

Conclusion

The Court of Appeal ordered the trial court to vacate its order compelling Manuel to disclose his immigration status and issued a writ of mandate. It ordered Manuel to receive his costs on appeal and returned the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

Get Help From a Los Angeles Employment Lawyer

If you are an undocumented worker who believes that your employer has violated California's labor laws, you might be entitled to pursue legal remedies through an employment lawsuit. An experienced Los Angeles employment lawyer at the law firm of Steven M. Sweat, APC can review what happened in your case and explain whether your potential claim is legally viable. Call us today for a free consultation at 866-966-5240.

Resources

[1] https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2022/h048655.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2022-09-02-labor-employment-law-07927d6711&utm_content=text-case-title-10

[2] http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/01-02/bill/sen/sb_1801-1850/sb_1818_bill_20020929_chaptered.html

[3] https://www.elaborlaw.com/wrongful-termination.html

[4] https://www.elaborlaw.com/retaliation.html

[5] https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/00-1595.ZS.html

[6] https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=8642171873078796083&hl=en&as_sdt=6&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr

[7] https://law.onecle.com/california/labor/1171.5.html

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