Court Says Illegal Workers Can Sue For Lost Wages

Mark Johnson, AP, Feb. 21, 2006

ALBANY, N.Y.—Immigrants toiling illegally in New York state can sue for lost wages if they are hurt on the job, the state’s highest court ruled Tuesday.

In two 5-2 decisions, the Court of Appeals said an award of past and future wages to an undocumented worker does not conflict with federal immigration law.

The case stems from an accident in April 2000. Gorgonio Balbuena, an undocumented alien from Mexico, fell from a ramp at a Manhattan construction site owned by IDR Realty LLC and Dora Wechler. The worker suffered several injuries, including multiple skull fractures. Balbuena claimed his injuries rendered him incapable of working and he filed a personal injury suit against the owners.

IDR and Wechler then sued Balbuena’s employer, Taman Management Corp.

Taman sought a dismissal of Balbuena’s claim for lost earnings, saying he shouldn’t receive an award for hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages that he could not legally earn in the United States. They argued that allowing an illegal workers to recover lost wages “condones past transgressions of immigration laws and encourages future violations.”

Manhattan Supreme Court ruled in favor of Balbuena, now 47, but an appeals court modified the decision, ruling Balbuena should only be entitled to wages he could have earned in Mexico.

The Court of Appeals reinstated the state Supreme Court ruling, saying there was nothing in U.S. immigration law that prevented Balbuena from receiving lost wages since there was no proof he used fraudulent documents to get the job. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 “does not make it a crime to work without documentation,” Judge Victoria Graffeo said in the decision.

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