Employment & Immigration Law: Illegal Alien’s Immigration Status Irrelevant to FLSA Wage Dispute

Employees’ immigration status was irrelevant to their claim seeking unpaid overtime and minimum wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Jin-Ming Lin v. Chinatown Restaurant Corp., 771 F. Supp. 2d. 185 (D. Mass. 2011)

Summary: Upon filing of the above claim in a class action, the Defendant restaurant group sought an order compelling written discovery information regarding the Plaintiff’s immigration status as well as information regarding the class.  Rejecting the Defendant’s contention that illegal aliens cannot recover unpaid wages, and by extension cannot represent a class seeking unpaid wages, the District Court held that such information was irrelevant to a claim for wages under the FLSA.

Discussion: This was an issue of first impression for the Court and hotly debated in other circuits given a US Supreme Court ruling in Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. NLRB, 535 U.S. 137 (2002), that held that the National Labor Relations Board did not have authority to award back pay to illegal aliens who had been terminated in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.  Rejecting all of the rationales of other courts for concluding that immigration status is irrelevant under the FLSA, the Court nevertheless held that immigration status has no effect in the proceedings.  The Court noted that the decision to award back pay in Hoffman was discretionary and that such discretion needed to be exercised in light of other federal policies.  In contrast, the award for unpaid wages under the FLSA was not discretionary but a statutory entitlement awarded when the claimant adequately makes the necessary showing.  Given that immigration status was not relevant to such a showing, it did not matter in this case.  Furthermore, the Court stated that any conflict between federal statutory policies arising from awarding unpaid wages to illegal immigrants should be dealt with by Congress, not the judges.

Practice Pointer: When remedies for unpaid wages are a result of statutory provision, so long as that statute or provision does not require a showing of immigration status, or even other factors, it need not be disclosed during discovery or trial.  It is simply irrelevant to the proceeding.

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