The New York Court of Appeals the state's highest court recently wrestled with that question as it examined two lawsuits filed by illegal aliens who were injured on construction sites.
In one case, Gorgonio Balbuena, a native of Mexico and an illegal alien, and his wife sued his employer for damages after an April 2000 workplace fall "rendered him incapacitated and unable to work," according to the court.
In the other case, Stanislaw Majlinger alleges he was seriously injured in January 2001 when he was standing on some scaffolding and the scaffolding collapsed. Majlinger, who had come from Poland to the United States on a travel visa, stayed here after his visa expired and was working here illegally, according to the court.
In both cases, the workers' requests for damages included demands for lost wages for their alleged inability to work as a result of their injuries.
One of the key issues the appeals court looked at was whether federal laws that were created to regulate immigration specifically the Immigration Reform and Control Act supersede state labor laws that require employers to maintain safe working conditions.
The appeals court concluded that the two cases do not trigger federal preemption of state laws. The court also determined that prohibiting undocumented aliens from recovering lost wages in personal injury lawsuits only would undermine federal immigration laws as well as state safety regulations.
In coming to its conclusions, the appeals court studied U.S. immigration laws, a landmark court case regarding the rights of illegal immigrants and the Constitutional principles of federal preemption of state law.
Landmark Case Denied Back Pay to Illegal Alien
Congress adopted the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986 to slow the influx of illegal aliens into the United States by eliminating their job opportunities.
In an effort to deter the employment of illegal aliens, the statute requires employers to verify prospective workers' identities and work eligibility before hiring them. IRCA also makes it illegal for employers to knowingly violate the employment verifications requirements and makes it a crime for an alien to provide false work documentation.
With this law in mind, the U.S. Supreme Court in Hoffman Plastic Compounds Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board ruled that an illegal alien who obtained a job by presenting false work documentation should not be awarded back pay after he was terminated for engaging in union-organization activities.
The Supreme Court concluded that awarding back pay in similar cases would "trivialize" federal immigration laws and would encourage illegal aliens to obtain work using false documentation.
In the two cases before the New York Court of Appeals, Hoffman plays an important role: The employers argue that IRCA, as it was interpreted in Hoffman, bars an illegal alien from recovering lost wages in a state personal injury action. They also assert that awarding lost wages to undocumented aliens undermines IRCA and encourages future violations of federal immigration laws.
Meanwhile, the workers argue that an undocumented alien should be able to recover lost wages resulting from their employers' alleged failure to adhere to state workplace safety regulations.
They also contend that IRCA does not preempt state labor law because prohibiting illegal aliens' lost wage claims actually would make it more attractive to hire them and that, the defendants argue, not only would undermine IRCA but also would take away employers' incentive to comply with state safety standards. The appeals court agreed.
Federal Versus State
Whether federal immigration laws such as IRCA preempt state labor laws was a central issue in the appeals court's decision. To makes its decision, the appeals court took a look at past Supreme Court interpretations of the Supremacy Clause in Article VI of the Constitution to see how the criteria for federal preemption of state law have evolved over the years.
Ultimately, the appeals court determined that federal preemption of state law would not be appropriate in the two cases.
Among its reasons, the appeals court stated that nothing in IRCA suggests that Congress meant for the immigration law to have any effect on the states' regulation of occupational safety and health.
In a more complicated issue, the appeals court concluded that awarding lost wages to an injured but undocumented alien worker would not conflict with or undermine the goals of IRCA which would have triggered the "conflict preemption."
In fact, the appeals court found that forbidding illegal aliens from recovering lost wages not only would take away employers' incentive to comply with state labor laws but also would "lessen the unscrupulous employer's potential liability to its alien workers and make it more financially attractive to hire undocumented aliens," Associate Judge Victoria Graffeo wrote for the court.
"This, coupled with the fact that illegal aliens are willing to work in jobs that are more dangerous and undesirable and for less money than their legal immigrant and citizen counterparts, would actually increase employment levels of undocumented aliens, not decrease it as Congress sought by its passage of IRCA," Graffeo wrote.
The court added that the precedent set by Hoffman does not apply to these two cases because, unlike in Hoffman, "there is no allegation in these cases that [the] plaintiffs produced false work documents in violation of IRCA or were even asked by the employers to present the work authorization documents as required by IRCA," Graffeo wrote.
The appeals court points out several times that IRCA does not make it a crime to work without authorization it's a crime only if a worker obtains a job using false documentation.
Immigration Status Can Be Considered
While the appeals court ruling was a victory for the workers, Graffeo notes that the court recognizes that the workers' presence in the United States without proper documentation is a violation of federal law and suggests that their immigration status can be taken into consideration when a jury decides how much, if anything, to award them in lost wages.
As an example, she points out that an undocumented alien plaintiff could introduce proof that he or she has obtained authorization to work in this country or is in the process of obtaining authorization to support the argument that he or she likely will be able to obtain future employment in the United States.
On the other hand, an employer could point out that a future wage award is not appropriate because the worker has not sought work authorization or the worker's request for work authorization has been denied.
"In other words," Graffeo wrote, "a jury's analysis of a future wage claim proffered by an undocumented alien is similar to a claim asserted by any other injured person in that the determination must be based on all of the relevant facts and circumstances presented in the case."
Smith Dissents from Majority Decision
Associate Judge Robert Smith dissented from the majority's decision, stating that allowing an illegal alien to recovery lost wages in a personal injury case "is barred by the rule of New York law that the courts will not aid in achieving the purpose of an illegal transaction."
Smith also contends that illegal aliens recovering lost wages is preempted by federal immigration laws, as interpreted in Hoffman.