N.D.Cal.: Undocumented Worker’s Submission Of False Documents To Obtain Employment Has No Bearing On FLSA Claims For Unpaid Wages Or Liquidated Damages

Ulin v. Lovell’s Antique Gallery

This case was before the Court on the parties’ cross motions for summary judgment on a variety of issues.  As discussed here, the Defendants asserted that the Plaintiff, an undocumented immigrant, was not entitled to recover unpaid overtime wages and/or liquidated damages under the FLSA, because he fraudulently obtained his job by providing false documents to the Defendants.  The Court roundly rejected this assertion, ruling that neither Plaintiff’s immigration status nor how he obtained his job had any impact on his FLSA claims.

Discussing these issues, the Court reasoned:

“Defendants argue that Plaintiff’s submission of false documents at the time of his employment precludes any recovery of overtime pay. Defendants point to the declaration of immigration attorney Jason Marachi, who reviewed the documents that Plaintiff submitted to Defendants at the time of his employment, performed an independent investigation, and concluded that Plaintiff submitted false work authorization documents to his employer and was not working legally in the United States while he worked for Defendants. See generally Marachi Decl. Plaintiff has not raised any factual dispute on this issue, but disagrees that his recovery of damages is affected.

Defendants rely primarily on Reyes v. Van Elk, Ltd., 148 Cal.App. 4th 604, 611 (2007), where the court stated that:

Thus, as presented to this court, this case does not involve a situation where undocumented workers submitted false work authorization documents to a prospective employer. (See e.g., Ulloa v. Al’s All Tree Service, Inc. (Dist.Ct.2003) 2 Misc.3d 262, 768 N.Y.S.2d 556, 558 [“The Court also notes in passing that, if there had been proof in this case that the Plaintiff had obtained his employment by tendering false documents (activity that is explicitly unlawful under IRCA), Hoffman would require that the wage claim [for unpaid wages] be disallowed in its entirety.”].) However, the issue of whether Hoffman requires that a wage claim be denied if an employee submitted false authorization documents is not before this court.

However, Reyes expressly did not reach the issue raised by Defendants, and therefore is of little help to them. Hoffman Plastic Components, Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board, 535 U.S. 137 (2002), cited by Reyes, foreclosed an award of backpay under the National Labor Relations Act to a worker who had submitted false documents to his employer because the Court found that an award of backpay “for years of work not performed, for wages that could not lawfully have been earned, and for a job obtained in the first instance by criminal fraud” would run counter to immigration policy. Id. at 149, 151. Hoffman did not involve a case such as this, where Plaintiff claims to have already performed the work in question and seeks payment for that work, and so it is also not directly on point.

Plaintiff argues that regardless of whether he presented false documents and was working illegally, he is entitled to recover his earned wages. Plaintiff notes that the cases interpreting Hoffman have not applied it to bar recovery of wages already earned. See, e.g., Singh v. Jutla & C.D. & R’s Oil, Inc., 214 F .Supp.2d 1056, 1061 (N.D.Cal.2002) (Breyer, J.) (quoting Flores v.. Albertsons, Inc., 2002 WL 1163623 (C.D.Cal.2002) (“Hoffman does not establish that an award of unpaid wages to undocumented workers for work actually performed runs counter to IRCA.”); Opp. at 19 (citing cases).

The case cited in Reyes, Ulloa v. Al’s All Tree Service, Inc., 768 N.Y.S.2d 556, 558 (Dist.Ct.2003), does not mandate a contrary result. Ulloa is New York small claims court decision where the Court limited an undocumented worker’s recovery of unpaid wages to the minimum wage, and then noted “in passing that, if there had been proof in this case that the Plaintiff had obtained his employment by tendering false documents (activity that is explicitly unlawful under IRCA), Hoffman would require that the wage claim [for unpaid wages] be disallowed in its entirety.” No case has followed this portion of Ulloa, or otherwise affirmatively held than an undocumented worker is precluded from recovering wages for work already performed simply because he submitted false documents at the time of employment. Indeed, a higher New York court has expressly rejected Ulloa ‘s dicta, and instead held that: “If federal courts ban discovery on immigration status in unpaid wages cases, the use of fraudulent documents on immigration status to gain employment in unpaid wages cases is likewise irrelevant. The only crucial issue is whether the undocumented worker performed services for which the worker deserves compensation. If so, public policy requires payment so that employers do not intentionally hire undocumented workers for the express purpose of citing the workers’ undocumented status or their use of fraudulent documents as a way to avoid payment of wages.” Pineda v. Kel-Tech Const., Inc., 832 N.Y.S.2d 386, 396 (N.Y.Sup.2007).

At oral argument, Defendants contended that, even if Plaintiff’s employment status does not require that all of his claims be disallowed, Hoffman precludes an award of liquidated damages under the FLSA. Defendants’ argument appears to be that FLSA liquidated damages are akin to the backpay for work not performed due to wrongful termination at issue in Hoffman, in that they go beyond simply compensating for past work, and therefore federal immigration policy makes this remedy unavailable to Plaintiff because it would reward violation of immigration laws while punishing the employer. There is no case expressly addressing the issue of whether FLSA liquidated damages are available to a plaintiff who presented false documents to his employer. While a close question, and one that pits important governmental policies relating to labor and immigration against each other, the Court’s interpretation of the statute and the caselaw runs counter to Defendants’ position.

First, the plain language of the FLSA mandates liquidated damages in an amount equal to the unpaid wages unless the employer “shows to the satisfaction of the court that the act or omission giving rise to such action was in good faith and that he had reasonable grounds for believing that his act or omission was not a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, as amended,” in which case “the court may, in its sound discretion, award no liquidated damages or award any amount thereof …” 29 U.S.C. § 260. “Under 29 U.S.C. § 260, the employer has the burden of establishing subjective and objective good faith in its violation of the FLSA.” Local 246 Utility Workers Union of America v. Southern California Edison Co., 83 F.3d 292, 297-298 (9th Cir.1996). Thus, the plain language of the FLSA’s liquidated damages provision focuses exclusively on the employer’s conduct, not the employee’s conduct. There is nothing in the language of the statute that allows the Court to take Plaintiff’s misconduct into account in determining whether to award liquidated damages. To the contrary, the imposition of liquidated damages is mandatory unless the employer establishes its own good faith.

Second, under the FLSA, “liquidated damages represent compensation, and not a penalty. Double damages are the norm, single damages the exception.” Local 246 Util. Workers Union v. S. Cal. Edison Co., 83 F.3d 292, 297 (9th Cir.1996); see also Overnight Motor Transp. Co. v. Missel, 316 U.S. 572, 584 (1942) (liquidated damages compensate for damages too obscure and difficult of proof), superceded by statute on other grounds; Herman v. RSR Sec. Services Ltd., 172 F.3d 132, 142 (2d Cir.1999) (“Liquidated damages are not a penalty exacted by the law, but rather compensation to the employee occasioned by the delay in receiving wages due caused by the employer’s violation of the FLSA”). Congress provided for liquidated damages because it recognized that those protected by federal wage and hour laws would have the most difficulty maintaining a minimum standard of living without receiving minimum and overtime wages and thus “that double payment must be made in the event of delay in order to insure restoration of the worker to that minimum standard of well-being.” See Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 707 (1945).

Following Hoffman, “[c]ourts have distinguished between awards of post-termination back pay for work not actually performed and awards of unpaid wages pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act (‘FLSA’).” Zeng Liu v. Donna Karan Intern., Inc., 207 F.Supp.2d 191, 192 (S.D.N.Y.2002); see also Widjaja v. Kang Yue USA Corp., 2010 WL 2132068, *1 (E.D.N.Y.2010). In Flores v. Amigon, 233 F.Supp.2d 462 (E.D.N.Y.2002), the court held that Hoffman did not apply to FLSA cases in which workers sought pay for work actually performed, and that, “enforcing the FLSA’s provisions requiring employers to pay proper wages to undocumented aliens when the work has been performed actually furthers the goal of the IRCA” because if the FLSA did not apply to undocumented aliens, employers would have a greater incentive to hire illegal aliens with the knowledge that they could not be sued for violating minimum wage requirements. While the interest in deterring employers from knowingly hiring undocumented workers in order to avoid lawsuits for wage violations does not apply when an employee uses false documents to successfully deceive an unknowing employer who attempted to comply with immigration law, the interest in deterrence does apply when the employer had reason to suspect or knew that the employee was not authorized to work in the United States but hired him anyway, colluding in the use of false documents. The record here is silent as to whether Defendants were successfully deceived as to Plaintiff’s authorization to work or instead knew or suspected that his documents were falsified.

Unlike the backpay for hours not worked at issue in Hoffman, here the liquidated damages are a form of compensation for time worked that cannot otherwise be calculated. See also Singh v. Jutla & C.D. & R’s Oil, Inc., 214 F.Supp.2d 1056 (N.D Cal.2002) (Breyer, J.) (stating that Hoffman did not address remedies of compensatory and punitive damages, and holding that undocumented employee could proceed with FLSA retaliation claim); Galdames v. N & D Investment Corp., 2008 WL 4372889 (S.D.Fla. Sept. 24, 2008) (finding that Hoffman did not overrule previous rule that an “undocumented worked may bring claims for unpaid wages and liquidated damages” for work already performed); Renteria v. Italia Foods, Inc., 2003 WL 21995190, *5-6 (N.D.Ill.2003) (striking FLSA backpay and frontpay claims in light of Hoffman /IRCA, but allowing claim for compensatory damages).

While none of the cases cited above involve an employee who affirmatively presented false documents, as opposed to simply being undocumented, Hoffman did not preclude compensatory damages for time already worked on the basis that the employee presented false documents. While the Hoffman Court was certainly concerned about the fact that the plaintiff had criminally violated IRCA by presenting false documents and was therefore never authorized to work in the United States, it also focused on the facts that: (1) the plaintiff had not actually performed the work for which he was seeking backpay, (2) he was only entitled to the backpay award by remaining in the country illegally, and (3) he could not mitigate damages as required without triggering further a IRCA violation. Here, by contrast, no further employment by Plaintiff is at issue as he only seeks compensation for work performed before his termination by Defendants and the issue of mitigating damages is not present, unlike in Hoffman. Further, as the Hoffman Court held, the NLRB’s other “ ‘traditional remedies’ [were] sufficient to effectuate national labor policy regardless of whether the ‘spur and catalyst’ of backpay accompanies them.” In contrast, FLSA liquidated damages are not a “spur and catalyst,” but instead numerous courts have found that they are intended as compensation for unpaid wages already earned but too difficult to calculate. Therefore, Defendants’ Motion is DENIED on this issue.”

Click Ulin v. Lovell’s Antique Gallery to read the entire opinion.

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Filed under Immigration Status, Liquidated Damages

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