Does An Illegal Alien Have Standing To Bring A Retaliatory Discharge Claim In Tennessee?

In Torres v. Precision Industries, P.I., Inc., et al. the Tennessee Court of Appeals recently answered the question of whether an illegal alien in Tennessee has standing to bring a retaliatory discharge claim.  Mr. Torres worked for Precision Industries as a convertor builder at its automotive manufacturing plant in Whiteville, Tennessee.  Torres was injured on the job and eventually retained a lawyer to represent him in connection with his workers’ compensation claim.  Torres’ lawyer called the defendants seeking the company’s fax number.  After this phone call Precision Industries Safety Manager and General Manager confronted Torres about his workers’ compensation claim and his decision to hire an attorney.  Later that day Torres was terminated for an alleged “lack of work”.  Torres then filed suit alleging he was discharged in retaliation for asserting a workers’ compensation claim.  It is undisputed that during the time he was employed by defendants Torres was an illegal alien.

The trial court granted defendants Motion for Summary Judgment and held that Torres could not assert a retaliatory discharge claim because he was not capable of employment due to his undisputed status as an illegal alien.  Torres appealed this decision to the Tennessee Court of Appeals and the Court of Appeals reversed.

The Court of Appeals first reviewed whether Torres’ immigration status would prevent him from filing a claim for workers’ compensation benefits.  The Court held that for workers’ compensation purposes an employee is anyone employed by another who works for wages or a salary, without regard to whether the employment is legal or illegal.  The Court also relied on a previous decision by the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Panel, Silva v. Martin Lumber Co., which held that an illegal alien is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.

After making these finding the Court of Appeals considered defendants’ argument that Torres was incapable of performing the job.  The Court of Appeals reviewed the case relied on by defendants, Leatherwood v. UPS, and held that it stood for the proposition that an employee can be legally fired because he is physically incapable of performing a job, not that an illegal alien lacks standing to bring a retaliatory discharge claim.  As a result, the decision granting summary judgment was reversed and the case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

This case does not mean that employers should ignore the immigration status of their employees.  To the contrary, it is illegal to knowingly employee an illegal alien and doing so can result in significant monetary penalties.  Additionally, terminating an employee because he or she is an illegal alien is a legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reason for the termination.  But an illegal alien who is fired for filing a workers’ compensation claim, or in retaliation for exercising other rights, can bring a retaliatory discharge claim and recover damages regardless of his immigration status.

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