Should Hoffman v. NLRB Effect Whether An Undocumented Immigrant Is Entitled To Future Lost Wages?

William W. Hurst – Personal Injury Lawyer, Indianapolis, IN

If you have been involved in a serious car crash and have had to deal with a negligent person or their insurance company then you know that insurance companies will do what it takes to save money on the claim.  If you have ever suffered a catastrophic injury at the hands of a careless driver then been forced to deal with their insurance company then you know how difficult it can be.

Many insurance companies and Defendants will commonly try to avoid paying the full value of a claim because the Plaintiff is an undocumented person.  Recently, their lawyers have latched onto a Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) opinion and incorrectly argued that it stands for the proposition that Undocumented People that are injured in Negligence cases should not be able to collect lost wagesUndocumented Immigrant in a common law negligence case. A common law negligence case is a personal injury case like a serious truck or car accident.

Hoffman v. NLRB is a case that involved a Labor Dispute and the Supreme Court of the United States was tasked with resolving the conflict between the Immigration Reform and Control Act and the National Labor Relations Act. That is, as a matter of fact, one of the primary purposes of SCOTUS, to resolve conflicts of laws.

In the Hoffman case, Castro, and undocumented worker began unionizing other employees at work and he was fired as a result. He filed against his employer before the National Labor Relations Board for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Namely, that Castro was wrongfully terminated from his employer for trying to unionize the employees which is a clear violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The National Labor Relations Board awarded Castro Back pay as part of his remedy.

Back Pay is a lost wage award that a person can earn retroactively for work not performed. It is a measure of damages in cases involving violations of Federal Labor Laws, meant to deter potentially unscrupulous employers from continuing to violate Federal Labor Laws.

Castro’s employer eventually appealed the case arguing that because Castro was undocumented and not entitled to work in the United States then he was not legally entitled to an award of back pay.  His employer argued that allowing Castro to get back pay would be like awarding him to working in the United States illegally.

SCOTUS agreed with his employer and reversed the award for back pay.

Some Courts in other States have applied the Hoffman Case too broadly to stand for the proposition that an undocumented person cannot collect FUTURE lost wages in a personal injury case where they have been permanently injured. These Courts read too much into the Hoffman decision and improperly applied this law.

What does Hoffman really mean?

This case involved a conflict of federal laws the IRCA and the NLRA between IRCA’s purpose of deterring employment of undocumented workers vs. awarding lost wages as a result of employer violations of the NLRA. It was a question of Federal Labor laws that govern employer/employee relationships, not State Tort Law which governs negligent acts between two parties.

The Plaintiff is Hoffman was not hurt, not prevented from working or living his daily life. State Tort Law plaintiffs, on the other hand, are often unable to live their lives as they did before and therefore unable to work. Hoffman resolved a Labor Law conflict whereas we are talking about state tort law cases involving serious or permanent injuries

The SCOTUS never intended for the Hoffman case to replace other protections available to people under State Tort Law grounds. As a matter of fact, the portion of the Hoffman opinion that most insurance companies rely on specifically states that SCOTUS wants to limit this opinion and not expand it, stating “[t]hat awarding back pay in a case like this not only trivializes the immigration laws, it also condones and encourages future violations because the alien would qualify for an NLRB award.” Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc., v. N.L.R.B., 122 S.Ct. 1275 (2002).  That is the key, “in a case like this” … A personal injury case is not a case like Hoffman this is a tort law case based on state tort law principals not the FLSA.

It is clear that SCOTUS never intended the Hoffman opinion to be broadly applied to personal injury cases. They specifically said that it should only apply to these types of cases and the facts surrounding the Hoffman Case are completely different than a personal injury case involving a serious injury.

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William W. Hurst

Bill Hurst has successfully represented hundreds of accident victims, and has limited his practice to personal injury cases for over thirty-five (35) years.


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