D.Mass.: FLSA Defendant Not Entitled to Discovery of Plaintiff’s Immigration Status

Jin-Ming Lin v. Chinatown Restaurant Corp.

This case was before the court on the parties cross-motions to compel discovery.  It appears that, as often occurs, the defendant was all too happy to employ plaintiff, an undocumented immigrant, prior to plaintiff’s filing of his FLSA case.  However, once the FLSA case was filed, the employer sought to fight the FLSA claim on the basis of plaintiff’s immigration status.  As discussed here, the court denied defendant’s motion to compel discovery of plaintiff’s immigration status.  Apparently this was an issue of first impression in the First Circuit, as the court noted that no prior court within the First Circuit had decided this hot-button issue.  While the court reached the same conclusion as most- that such information was irrelevant, because FLSA rights are absolute, regardless of immigration status- it noted that it’s reasoning was divergent from the majority of courts.

Denying the defendant’s motion and noting that such information was irrelevant to a case under the FLSA, the court reasoned:

“Nonetheless, while I find the reasoning advanced by other courts in holding that illegal aliens may recover for unpaid wages under the FLSA to be insufficient, I come to the same ultimate conclusion for a different reason that has not, so far as I know, yet been relied on. Awards for back pay under the NLRA, at issue in Hoffman, are discretionary. See 29 U.S.C. § 160(c) (Courts may order “reinstatement of employees with or without back pay ….”); see also NLRB v. Harding Glass Co., 500 F.3d 1, 8 (1st Cir.2007) (NLRB has “broad remedial powers” under 29 U.S.C. § 160(c) including “discretion both to determine that back pay is appropriate … and to compute the back pay amount.”). As Hoffman recognized, agencies are required to exercise their discretion in light of other federal policies. 535 U.S. at 146 (“In devising remedies for unfair labor practices, the Board is obliged to take into account [other] equally important Congressional objective[s].”) (internal quotation omitted). This basic tenet of administrative law is what first prompted the Court in Hoffman to look at federal immigration policy as a limit on the NLRB’s authority and discretion to award back pay in the circumstances. See id. at 143-44.

In contrast, awards for unpaid wages under the FLSA are not discretionary, but rather a matter of statutory entitlement when the necessary factual predicate has been established. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (“Any employer who violates the [minimum wage or overtime provisions of the FLSA] shall be liable to the employee or employees affected in the amount of their unpaid minimum wages, or their unpaid overtime compensation.”) (emphasis added). Courts do not have discretion to deny the award of FLSA damages when they have been proved. Adjudication of an FLSA cause of action does not call upon the court to make a discretionary policy- or interest-balancing assessment. See Keith Cunningham-Parmeter, Redefining the Rights of Undocumented Workers, 58 Am. U.L.Rev. 1361, 1389 (2009) (remarking that the nondiscretionary nature of back pay under the FLSA “leaves no room for any type of Hoffman-inspired balancing between federal labor and immigration objectives”).

Of course, the tension between policies underlying the FLSA, on the one hand, and the IRCA, on the other, continues to exist. In Hoffman, the Court was able to find a resolution by giving priority to the statutory policy of the IRCA over the administrative discretion of the NLRB. That resolution is not possible where both poles of the conflict are statutory directives. A court entertaining an FLSA suit lacks the authority or discretion to resolve the tension. If a plaintiff makes out an FLSA case, he is entitled to an FLSA remedy, any obstruction or interference with immigration policy notwithstanding. As Judge Walker of the Second Circuit noted, after that circuit tackled a particularly confounding case of conflict preemption under Hoffman, “judges are especially ill-suited to divining the unexpressed will of Congress when it comes to hot-button and ever-shifting issues like immigration policy.” Madeira, 469 F.3d at 254 (Walker, C.J., concurring). Any remedy for an incompatibility between federal labor and immigration policies will have to come from Congress, not the lower courts.

For the foregoing reasons, the plaintiffs’ immigration status is irrelevant to their FLSA claims and their suitability to lead a class. The defendants’ motions to compel (dkt. nos. 28 & 29) are DENIED.”

Click Jin-Ming Lin v. Chinatown Restaurant Corp. to read the entire decision.

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Filed under Discovery, Immigration Status

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