Janitors Reinstated by Appeals Court

Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, June17, 2008

A federal appeals court ordered reinstatement Monday for 33 janitors in Los Angeles who were fired because their Social Security numbers did not match the government’s database, a ruling that could strengthen unions’ case against a Bush administration proposal to pressure employers to get rid of suspected illegal immigrants.

The decision by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco did not address the legality of the administration’s so-called no-match rule, which a federal judge blocked in October. That rule would threaten employers with civil fines and criminal prosecution unless they fired workers who failed to clear up discrepancies between their Social Security numbers and government records.

But in ordering the Los Angeles janitors rehired with back pay, the court said employees can’t be fired merely because the Social Security number they submit differs from the number in the government’s files—a major issue in lawsuits over the administration’s plan.

A Social Security number discrepancy “does not automatically mean that an employee is undocumented,” the court said. It was the first federal appeals court in the nation to rule on no-match letters.

The janitors worked for Aramark Facility Services at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. After receiving government letters in 2003 saying 48 employees’ Social Security numbers did not match the federal database, the company gave the employees three days to clear up the problem. Fifteen did so, and the other 33 were fired.

The employees, whose union contract protected them from being fired without good cause, won reinstatement and back pay from an arbitrator, who said Aramark had no convincing information that they were illegal immigrants. A federal judge disagreed but was overruled Monday by the three-judge appellate panel.

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The ruling was written by Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall, one of the most conservative jurists on the Ninth Circuit court. {snip}

An employer who receives one of the millions of no-match letters mailed annually by the Social Security Administration must stop crediting the employee’s earnings for Social Security benefits, but until now such employers have not faced punishment for retaining the worker. That would change under the administration’s proposed rule.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer of San Francisco issued an injunction against the rule in October in response to lawsuits from unions and business groups. Breyer said the proposal would harm innocent workers and employers and that serious questions had been raised about its legality.

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Read the ruling

The appeals court’s ruling in Aramark Facility Services vs. Service Employees International Union can be read at:

www.ca9.uscourts.gov/ca9/newopinions.nsf

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