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8th Cir.: Unauthorized Aliens May Sue Under the FLSA to Recover Damages for Work Performed
September 18, 2013 8:21 am / Leave a comment
Lucas v. Jerusalem Cafe, LLC
Following a jury verdict, in favor of the plaintiff-employees, the defendant-employer appealed. As discussed here, the defendant-employer contended that plaintiffs, undocumented (or “illegal”) aliens lacked standing under the FLSA to assert a claim for unpaid wages. Reasoning that unauthorized aliens fit within the definition, scope and purpose of the FLSA, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the jury’s verdict in favor of the workers, and held that undocumented aliens are entitled to the FLSA’s protections regarding work already performed.
Discussing judicial precedent the Eighth Circuit explained:
The only circuit court to address the question directly, see Patel v. Quality Inn S., 846 F.2d 700 (11th Cir.1988); numerous district courts, including the one in this case; and the Secretary of Labor (Secretary) all agree: employers who unlawfully hire unauthorized aliens must otherwise comply with federal employment laws. The employers’ argument to the contrary rests on a legal theory as flawed today as it was in 1931 when jurors convicted Al Capone of failing to pay taxes on illicit income. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes explained in United States v. Sullivan, 274 U.S. 259, 263, 47 S.Ct. 607, 71 L.Ed. 1037 (1927), there is no “reason why the fact that a business is unlawful should exempt it from paying the taxes that if lawful it would have to pay.” Here, too, there is no “reason why the fact that” the employers unlawfully hired the workers “should exempt” them “from paying the” wages “that if lawful” they “would have to pay.” Id. “Certainly there is no reason for treating” the employers “more leniently.” Rutkin v. United States, 343 U.S. 130, 137, 72 S.Ct. 571, 96 L.Ed. 833 (1952). Like the Eleventh Circuit, we hold that aliens, authorized to work or not, may recover unpaid and underpaid wages under the FLSA. See Patel, 846 F.2d at 706 (“[U]ndocumented workers are ’employees’ within the meaning of the FLSA and … such workers can bring an action under the act for unpaid wages and liquidated damages.”).
The court then went on to analyze the plain language of the FLSA:
Because this case is one of statutory interpretation, our “starting point … is the existing statutory text.” Lamie v. U.S. Tr., 540 U.S. 526, 534, 124 S.Ct. 1023, 157 L.Ed.2d 1024 (2004). As to minimum wages, the text of the FLSA states “[e]very employer shall pay to each of his employees who in any workweek is engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce, or is employed in an enterprise engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce, wages at the [minimum wage rate].” 29 U.S.C. § 206(a) (emphasis added). The FLSA’s overtime wage scheme is more complex, but the crux is simple: “[n]o employer shall employ any of his employees … for a workweek longer than forty hours unless such employee receives compensation for his employment in excess of the hours above specified at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate at which he is employed.” Id. § 207(a)(1).
The FLSA’s sweeping definitions of “employer” and “employee” unambiguously encompass unauthorized aliens:
(d) “Employer” includes any person acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee and includes a public agency, but does not include any labor organization (other than when acting as an employer) or anyone acting in the capacity of officer or agent of such labor organization.
(e)(1) [With certain statutorily defined exceptions], the term “employee” means any individual employed by an employer.
(g) “Employ” includes to suffer or permit to work.
29 U.S.C. § 203(d), (e)(1), (g) (emphasis added). During debate over the FLSA, then-Senator Hugo Black (who, shortly before his elevation to the Supreme Court, sponsored the bill that ultimately became the FLSA) called the FLSA’s “definition of employee … the broadest definition that has ever been included in any one act.” 81 Cong. Rec. 7656–57 (1937).
Importantly, Congress showed elsewhere in the statute that it “knows how to” limit this broad definition “when it means to,” City of Milwaukee v. Illinois & Michigan, 451 U.S. 304, 329 n. 22, 101 S.Ct. 1784, 68 L.Ed.2d 114 (1981), and it did not do so with respect to unauthorized aliens. See 29 U.S.C. § 203(e). The FLSA contains detailed limitations for certain governmental employees, see id. § 203(e)(2); family members engaged in agricultural work, see id. § 203(e)(3); state, local, and interstate governmental volunteers, see id. § 203(e)(4); and “individuals who volunteer their services solely for humanitarian purposes to private non-profit food banks and who receive from the food banks groceries,” id. § 203(e)(5). Nowhere in this list do we see any indication Congress meant to exclude unauthorized aliens from the FLSA’s broad application to “any individual” whom an employer “suffer[s] or permit[s] to work.” Id. § 203(e)(1), (g).
As the Supreme Court has long emphasized, “where, as here, the statute’s language is plain, ‘the sole function of the courts is to enforce it according to its terms.’ ” United States v. Ron Pair Enters., Inc., 489 U.S. 235, 241, 109 S.Ct. 1026, 103 L.Ed.2d 290 (1989) (quoting Caminetti v. United States, 242 U.S. 470, 485, 37 S.Ct. 192, 61 L.Ed. 442 (1917)). Because the FLSA by its plain terms protects aliens working without authorization, the employers’ argument must fail unless the employers can point to a different statutory basis for limiting “the broadest definition that has ever been included in any one act,” 81 Cong. Rec. at 7657.
Rejecting the defendant’s argument that the IRCA and Hoffman Plastic supported a conclusion that such workers were not entitled to the FLSA’s statutory protections, the court reasoned:
The employers point to the Supreme Court’s decision in Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. NLRB, 535 U.S. 137, 122 S.Ct. 1275, 152 L.Ed.2d 271 (2002), for the proposition that the IRCA implicitly amended the FLSA to exclude unauthorized aliens. The employers misread Hoffman, ignore the relevant agency’s reasonable interpretations of the FLSA and the IRCA, and “ascribe to Congress an intent at variance with the purpose[s] of th[e] statute [s],” Wyandotte Transp. Co. v. United States, 389 U.S. 191, 200, 88 S.Ct. 379, 19 L.Ed.2d 407 (1967).
In Hoffman, the Supreme Court held that unauthorized aliens may not receive backpay after being terminated for engaging in union activities protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 151–169. See Hoffman, 535 U.S. at 151–52, 122 S.Ct. 1275. The issue in Hoffman was not, as the employers seem to think, whether the NLRA’s broad definitions of “employer” and “employee,” see 29 U.S.C. § 152, excluded unauthorized aliens from all protection by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). See Hoffman, 535 U.S. at 142–43, 122 S.Ct. 1275. Rather, the question in Hoffman was whether the NLRB’s remedial power extended far enough to “allow it to award backpay to an illegal alien for years of work not performed.” Id. at 149, 122 S.Ct. 1275 (emphasis added). Far from concluding the NLRA did not protect unauthorized aliens for work actually performed, the Hoffman court—after considering Congress’s intervening enactment of the IRCA—reaffirmed its earlier holding in Sure–Tan, Inc. v. NLRB, 467 U.S. 883, 104 S.Ct. 2803, 81 L.Ed.2d 732 (1984), that the NLRA applies to the actual employment of unauthorized aliens. See Hoffman, 535 U.S. at 151–52, 122 S.Ct. 1275;Sure–Tan, 467 U.S. at 893–94, 104 S.Ct. 2803.
Not only is our reading of Hoffman consistent with the overwhelming majority of post-Hoffman decisions by courts at every level, but “[n]o circuit court has reached a contrary conclusion,” Agri Processor Co. v. NLRB, 514 F.3d 1, 5–6 (D.C.Cir.2008). In Madeira v. Affordable Hous. Found., Inc., 469 F.3d 219 (2d Cir.2006), the Second Circuit explained:
[A]n order requiring an employer to pay his undocumented workers the minimum wages prescribed by the [FLSA] for labor actually and already performed…. does not … condone that violation or continue it. It merely ensures that the employer does not take advantage of the violation by availing himself of the benefit of undocumented workers’ past labor without paying for it in accordance with minimum FLSA standards.
Id. at 243. Interpreting an analogous definition of “employee” in Agri Processor, the D.C. Circuit found “absolutely no evidence that in passing IRCA Congress intended to repeal the NLRA to the extent its definition of ’employee’ include[d] undocumented aliens.” Agri Processor, 514 F.3d at 5.
The court also noted that the Eleventh Circuit had recently reiterated the undocumented aliens were protected by the FLSA, further supporting its conclusion regarding same:
Shortly after our court heard argument in this case, the Eleventh Circuit reaffirmed its decision in Patel “that undocumented aliens may recover their unpaid wages under the FLSA.” Lamonica v. Safe Hurricane Shutters, Inc., 711 F.3d 1299, 1306 (11th Cir.2013). Rejecting arguments similar to those advanced by the employers here, the Eleventh Circuit concluded “the IRCA does not express Congress’s clear and manifest intent to exclude undocumented aliens from the protection of the FLSA.” Id. at 1308.
The court found further support in the fact that the DOL has long taken the position that undocumented aliens are covered under the FLSA:
As the Secretary explains, there is no conflict between the FLSA and the IRCA. Both statutes work in tandem to discourage employers from hiring unauthorized workers by “assur[ing] that the wages and employment of lawful residents are not adversely affected by the competition of illegal alien employees who are not subject to the standard terms of employment,” Sure–Tan, 467 U.S. at 893, 104 S.Ct. 2803.
The Department of Labor’s position that the FLSA applies to aliens without employment authorization is longstanding and consistent. In 1942, just four years after the FLSA’s passage, the Department of Labor’s “Wage and Hour Administrator opined that alien prisoners of war were covered by the [FLSA] and therefore were entitled to be paid the minimum wage.” Patel, 846 F.2d at 703. Since then, in case after case, the Department of Labor has taken the same position it takes here.
In the Secretary’s amicus brief filed in this case, the Secretary explains that applying the FLSA to unauthorized aliens “is essential to achieving the purposes of the FLSA to protect workers from substandard working conditions, to reduce unfair competition for law-abiding employers, and to spread work and thereby reduce unemployment by requiring employers to pay overtime compensation.” Given the Department’s decades-long consistency and the Secretary’s “specialized experience and broader investigations and information” in these matters, we think the Secretary’s position is persuasive and merits Skidmore deference—to the extent there is any statutory ambiguity. Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134, 139, 65 S.Ct. 161, 89 L.Ed. 124 (1944); see also Godinez–Arroyo v. Mukasey, 540 F.3d 848, 850 (8th Cir.2008).
Finally the court recognized Congressional intent also supported its conclusion:
We agree with the Secretary’s position, independent of any deference to the Department of Labor’s expertise, because Congress’s purposes in enacting the FLSA and the IRCA are in harmony. The IRCA unambiguously prohibits hiring unauthorized aliens, and the FLSA unambiguously requires that any unauthorized aliens—hired in violation of federal immigration law—be paid minimum and overtime wages. The IRCA and FLSA together promote dignified employment conditions for those working in this country, regardless of immigration status, while firmly discouraging the employment of individuals who lack work authorization. “If an employer realizes that there will be no advantage under the” FLSA “in preferring [unauthorized] aliens to legal resident workers, any incentive to hire such … aliens is correspondingly lessened.” Sure–Tan, 467 U.S. at 893, 104 S.Ct. 2803. Exempting unauthorized aliens from the FLSA would frustrate the purposes of the IRCA, for unauthorized workers’ “acceptance … of jobs on substandard terms as to wages and working conditions can seriously depress wage scales and working conditions of citizens and legally admitted aliens.” De Canas v. Bica, 424 U.S. 351, 356–57, 96 S.Ct. 933, 47 L.Ed.2d 43 (1976).
Holding employers who violate federal immigration law and federal employment law liable for both violations advances the purpose of federal immigration policy by “offset[ting] what is perhaps the most attractive feature of [unauthorized] workers—their willingness to work for less than the minimum wage.” Patel, 846 F.2d at 704. For this reason, prohibiting employers from hiring unauthorized aliens is in harmony with requiring employers—including those who break immigration laws by hiring unauthorized workers—to provide fair working conditions and wages. Both (1) the legislative history of the IRCA, which we reference “for those who find legislative history useful,” United States v. Tinklenberg, 563 U.S. ––––, ––––, 131 S.Ct. 2007, 2015, 179 L.Ed.2d 1080 (2011), and (2) “our steadfast canons of statutory construction,” United States v. Johnson, 703 F.3d 464, 468 (8th Cir.2013), confirm this point.
First, the House Committee on Education and Labor’s report on the IRCA explained Congress did
not intend that any provision of [the IRCA] would limit the powers of State or Federal labor standards agencies such as … the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor … to remedy unfair practices committed against undocumented employees for exercising their rights before such agencies or for engaging in activities protected by these agencies. To do otherwise would be counter-productive of our intent to limit the hiring of undocumented employees and the depressing effect on working conditions caused by their employment.
H.R.Rep. No. 99–682(II), at 1 (1986), reprinted in 1986 U.S.C.C.A.N. 5757, 5758 (emphasis added). When Congress passed the IRCA, at least the authors of this report expected the FLSA would continue to protect unauthorized aliens from substandard working conditions and wages.
Second, § 111(d) of the IRCA “authorized to be appropriated, … such sums as may be necessary to the Department of Labor for enforcement activities of the Wage and Hour Division … in order to deter the employment of unauthorized aliens and remove the economic incentive for employers to exploit and use such aliens.” Pub.L. No. 99–603, § 111(d), 100 Stat. 3359, 3381 (1986). Presuming, as the employers do, that the IRCA impliedly exempts unauthorized aliens from the protections of the FLSA would render this section “mere surplusage,” Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 174, 2 L.Ed. 60 (1803). No “sums” would “be necessary” to enforce the FLSA as to unauthorized aliens if the FLSA did not apply to their employment. § 111(d), 100 Stat. at 3381. A reading that turns an entire subsection into a meaningless aside “is inadmissible, unless the words require it.” Marbury, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) at 174. The IRCA’s words do not require it, so “the presumption against surplusage [is] decisive.” Johnson, 703 F.3d at 468.
As such, the court held that “unauthorized aliens may sue under the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. §§ 206(a), 207(a), 216(b), to recover statutory damages for work actually performed.”
Click Lucas v. Jerusalem Cafe, LLC to read the entire opinion. Click DOL Amicus Brief to read the Secretary of Labor’s Amicus Curiae Brief, submitted in support of the Plaintiffs-Appellees.