By: Meagan D. Christiansen

The Third Appellate District for the California Court of Appeals recently issued a decision that provides hope for those employers who unknowingly hire undocumented workers throughout California. In Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co., the court used the after-acquired evidence and unclean hands doctrines to bar Salas’ Complaint, ruling that undocumented workers are not entitled to recourse on a wrongful failure to hire claim, where they misrepresent their lawful ability to work in the first place.

Relevant Facts:

Vicente Salas was a seasonal worker at Sierra Chemical, a swimming pool chemical business. In 2006, he injured his back while working. After returning to work for a short time on modified duty, he reinjured his back when he was re-assigned to his regular duties. Following this injury, he brought a workers’ compensation claim against the company. In December 2006, Salas was laid off as part of Sierra Chemical’s annual reduction. In 2007 Sierra Chemical contacted Salas, informing him that he could return to work, provided he could establish he had received a medical release. Salas could not produce such a release and was precluded from returning pursuant to Sierra Chemical’s policies.

Salas filed a civil complaint against Sierra Chemical for disability discrimination in violation of the FEHA and denial of employment in violation of public policy. Specially, Salas alleged: (1) Sierra Chemical failed to reasonably accommodate his disability; (2) Sierra Chemical failed to engage in the interactive process; and (3) he was denied employment as punishment for filing a claim for workers’ compensation benefits.

After filing his case, Salas filed a in limine motion with the trial court asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in response to any inquiry into his immigration status. Sierra Chemical then discovered the Social Security number provided by Salas to secure his employment belonged to a man in North Carolina. Sierra Chemical filed for summary judgment, arguing the after-acquired evidence and unclean hands doctrines barred Salas’s causes of action as a matter of law. Sierra Chemical argued that had they known Salas was ineligible to work in the United States, he would not have been hired, and as such, the company could not be held liable for failing to rehire him. Though originally denying the motion, the court ultimately agreed with Sierra Chemical. Salas appealed that decision.

Courts Holding:

The Court of Appeals found for Sierra Chemical, holding Salas’s lawsuit was barred on two grounds. First, under the after-acquired evidence doctrine, Salas could not bring a wrongful refusal to hire complaint where he had no right to be rehired given the company policy of refusing to hire applicants who submit a false Social Security number.

The court also found the suit was barred under the unclean hands’ doctrine. In making their determination, the court considered the nature of Salas’s misrepresentation that he was legally capable of working in the United States, the fact that the misrepresentation exposed Sierra Chemical to federal penalties for submitting false information, and the fact that Salas was disqualified from employment by means of governmental requirements. Ultimately, the court held “[b]ecause Salas was not lawfully qualified for the job, he cannot be heard to complain that he was not hired.”

Finally, Salas argued that Senate Bill 1818, a 2002 California law, precluded application of after-acquired evidence and unclean hands doctrines based on his immigration status. This argument, however, was rejected by the Court of Appeals. The court found that while current California law provides undocumented workers “all protections, rights, and remedies available under state law”, it does not expand the law to allow undocumented immigrants to maintain failure to hire claims. Rather, immigration status does not matter where any employee is prohibited from maintaining a claim for wrongful termination/failure to hire where he/she misrepresents a federally imposed job qualification.

The Effect of Salas on California Employers:

It should be noted that the Salas decision is not without limits. First, the decision explicitly precludes the use of the doctrines where pervasive discriminatory conduct harms an employee. Moreover, it is imperative the employer first establish that it is their settled policy to discharge/refuse to hire undocumented workers. This underscores the importance of employers maintaining strict policies with respect to hiring undocumented workers. However, where this can be proven, Salas helps protect employers who unknowingly hire undocumented workers.