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September 1, 2014

Salas v. Sierra Chemical Company

By: Vic R. Redula

Vicente Salas was hired in April 2003 as a lineworker by defendant, Sierra Chemical Company as a seasonal worker. When first hired, he provided his employer a Social Security Number and a resident alien card. He also completed and signed employment forms including a federal Immigration and Naturalization form I-9 which he signed under penalty of perjury.When the season ended , he was laid off in October, 2003.
He was rehired in March, 2004 after using the same Social Security Number as before. He was laid off at the end of the season in December, 2004. the same in 2005, he was rehired at the start of the season using the same documents and laid off at the end of the 2004 season.
In late 2004 or early 2005, he received a letter from the federal Social Security Administration stating that the name and Social Security number did not match the agency's records. Some of his co-workers received similar letters. A few days later, Mr. Salas' production manager told the workers not to worry about discrepancies with Social Security numbers because as long as the company's president was satisfied with their work they would not be terminated.
Unfortunately, he sustained back injury while stacking crates in March 2006. He filed a workers' compensation claim and was treated and returned to work with restrictions from lifting more than 10 to 15 pounds plus other limitations.  His employer was able to accommodate these limitations for the rest of the season.  He was again laid off at the end of the 2006 season.
In March, 2007, Mr. Salas' production manger telephoned him and asked him that if he wanted to return to work and if he he had fully recovered from his back injuries. Mr. Salas told him that he was still seeing a doctor. His manager told him that he could "not return to work to work like that", adding that it would violate defendant employer's policies to do so.
On May 1, 2007, defendant sent Mr. Salas a letter stating that it was recalling laid-off employees and told him to call or come to defendant's office to make arrangements to return to work. He was also told to bring "a copy of your doctor's release stating that you have been released to return to full duty." On May 6, 2007, Mr. Salas told his employer  that he had not been released by his doctor but had an appointment on June 12, 2007 to obtain the release. Defendant agreed to hold the job open for him until he obtained the doctor's release. Obviously, Mr. Salas was not able to get the release because he was still injured and was therefore not rehired by defendant.
Mr. Salas sued his employer alleging that he was disabled and that defendant failed to provide reasonable accommodations for his disability in violation of California's FEHA. He also alleged that defendant wrongfully denied him employment in violation of the public policy expressed in FEHA by retaliating against him for filing a workers' compensation claim against defendant and for being disabled.
Sometime during litigation, defendant "discovered" that the Social Security number provided by Mr. Salas belong to another person, a resident of North Carolina who submitted a Declaration to this effect. Based on this defendant filed a motion for summary judgment claiming that it is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law under the legal doctrines of after-acquired evidence and unclean hands.
The California Supreme Court disagreed and held that,
1. California Senate Bill No. 1818 (enacted in 2002) expressly makes the worker protection provisions of state employment and labor laws available to all workers "regardless of immigration status."
2. Not allowing unauthorized workers to obtain state remedies for unlawful discharge, including prediscovery period lost wages, would effectively immunize employers that, in violation of fundamental state policy, discriminate against their workers on grounds such as disability or race, retaliate against workers who seek compensation for disabling workplace injuries, or fail to pay the wages that state law requires; and
3. Senate Bill 1818, insofar as it makes available to such workers the remedy of prediscovery period lost wages for unlawful termination in violation of FEHA, does not frustrate the purpose of the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, thus IS NOT PREEMPTED (emphasis added).

NOTE: This is consistent with the holding of the Appeals Court in Farmers Bros.(2005) 133 CalApp4th 533, 540 which held, "If unauthorized aliens were to be denied state labor law protections, unscrupulous employers would be encouraged to hire aliens unauthorized to work in the United States, by taking the chance that the federal authorities would accept their claims of good faith reliance upon immigration and work authorization documents that appear to be genuine."

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