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Cruz v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board – Court Weighs Proof Burden for Injured Undocumented Workers

It’s been well-established by courts across the country – including Georgia – that undocumented and illegal immigrants who sustain work injuries are entitled to collect worker’s compensation insurance benefits from their employer.
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Further, our Atlanta workers’ compensation attorneys know that one of the key hurdles in any work injury claim is proving the worker has been unable to obtain gainful employment since the injury and proximately as a result of the disability.

What the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled in a split decision in Cruz v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, where the employer sought to cut benefits to an injured, undocumented worker, was that the employer had the burden of proof with regard to the assertion that the worker was unable to find work because of his undocumented status, rather than his work injury. Additionally, the court found the worker’s invocation of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during a hearing before the state worker’s compensation board didn’t constitute substantial evidence of the worker’s alleged lack of legal status to work in the U.S.

This ruling is important because it holds that companies that benefit from the cheap labor of undocumented workers can’t easily skirt responsibilities when those workers are injured.

In this case, the worker was employed as a truck driver for a company that owned an operated a mushroom farm. In the summer of 2008, the claimant was loading barrels onto the truck when he felt his lower back snap. The worker reported the injury to his employer and immediately sought treatment from a doctor designated by the company.

The doctor diagnosed the worker with a herniated disc, and indicated he could not resume normal work duties. Instead, he was placed on restriction that limited his requirements to lift, bend, stretch or reach.

Upon receipt of this information, the employer indicated there was no position available compatible with this restrictions, and the worker did not return to work. The employer did pay temporary compensation benefits for two months, but then abruptly stopped payment and issued a formal denial of benefits.

The worker filed a petition asserting the injury to his back, which was disabling and ongoing, was directly work-related. He sought compensation for medical bills and lost wages.

The employer responded with a denial of all allegations. At a hearing on the matter, the worker testified about his job duties, his salary, his hours, the circumstances surrounding his injury and his current state of disability. The employer’s attorney then cross-examined and began to question him about where he was born. He replied he was born in Ecuador and that he had come to the country 10 years earlier, at the age of 23.

At that point, the worker’s lawyer objected to further questions regarding the worker’s citizenship status. However, the workers’ compensation board overruled, indicating that citizenship was relevant, per case law. As the employer’s attorney pressed further on his legal status in the U.S., the worker invoked the Fifth Amendment on the advise of his lawyer.

The administrative law judge subsequently found the injury both work-related and partially disabling, ordering the employer to cover all the worker’s reasonable and necessary medical expenses. However, the judge suspended wage benefits from the date of injury, based on the fact that the employer had met the burden of proof to establish the worker was not eligible for legal employment in the U.S.

The appellate board reversed in part, finding the question of the claimant’s citizenship status wasn’t proven simply by the worker’s failure to testify. No other evidence was presented to support the claim the worker was not documented.

While the burden of proof is usually on the worker to establish proof of employment eligibility, here, the employer, as the party seeking suspension of benefits, had the burden of proof.

Despite the employer’s assertion that the plaintiff failed to prove eligibility to work in this country, the court found only two requirements are necessary for a worker to collect benefits: The first is an injury sustained during the course of employment, and the second is disability resulting from that injury. A claimant’s eligibility to lawfully work in this country is not a relevant consideration when establishing either of these things. Therefore, even if the burden of proof had been on the plaintiff, it would not have been necessary for him to reveal his citizenship status.

For information on Atlanta work injury compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-303-7770.

Additional Resources:
Cruz v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, July 23, 2014, Pennsylvania Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Study: Undocumented Workers Face Danger on the Job, July 23, 2014, Atlanta Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog