The Eighth Circuit recently issued a case based on the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in favor of five undocumented workers who were denied backpay and overtime wages by their employer. The case, Elmer Lucas et. Al. v. Jerusalem Café, LLC et. al., marks an important step in the progress towards fair treatment of workers throughout the U.S.
Based on the workers' well-documented claims to those wages, a district court awarded $141,864.04 in actual damages for unpaid FSLA wages, $141,864.04 in liquidated damages based on the jury's finding that the employers willfully failed to pay FSLA wages, $150,627 in legal fees and $6,561.63 in expenses.
The employers then moved for a judgment as a matter of law, or in the alternative, a new trial, arguing that undocumented workers had no standing to sue under FLSA. The district court denied JMOL, calling it a belated attempt to bring an affirmative defense, and ruling that the employers had waived the defense for failing to raise it until post-trial. O
n the question of Article III standing, whether the employees had suffered an injury in fact (which cannot be waived), the court found that the employees had suffered an injury capable of being redressed by the court. The court also denied the employers a new trial, writing of a general consensus that immigration status is irrelevant in an employee's right to recover under FLSA.
The Eighth Circuit upheld the district court decision, making a distinction based on the 2002 Supreme Court decision, Hoffman Plastic v. NLRB, 535 US 137 (2002). In that case, the Supreme Court held that undocumented workers could not receive backpay after being terminated for participating in union activities.
The employers here argued that Hoffman bars undocumented workers in general from recovering under FLSA. However, Judge Riley of the Eighth Circuit wrote that Hoffman merely disallowed employees from recovering backpay for work not performed. At issue in this case was backpay for work that had been performed. Judge Riley went on to outline the Department of Labor's longstanding position that the FLSA does apply to undocumented workers, and that this position is essential to achieving the very purpose of the FLSA.
This decision is important in solidifying the standard that, although hiring undocumented workers is indeed in violation of federal law, workers' undocumented status will not excuse employers from paying workers for work performed, pursuant to the FLSA. It places accountability on the employers, rather than the more vulnerable workers. In conclusion, Judge Riley put it most succinctly: “Breaking one law does not give license to ignore other generally applicable laws.”
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