In the U.S. Unlawfully But Eligible for Workers' Comp?

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn October 25, 2012In: Benefits, Cases of Note, Delaware Specific, Hiring

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Is an employee who is in the country illegally a covered "employee" under the Workers' Compensation laws? That was the question of first impression presented to the Delaware Superior Court in Del. Valley Field Servs. v. Ramirez, (PDF) No. 12A-01-007-JOH (Sep. 13, 2012). The court concluded that the answer is "yes," and ordered that the former employee, who has since been deported to Honduras, is eligible to receive benefits under Delaware's workers-compensation statute.

Facts
The employee, Saul Melgar Ramirez, was hired in April 2010 as an "independent contractor'"--which the term the court uses to say that Ramirez was paid in cash. In January 2011, he was converted to a regular employee and added to the payroll. When told by his boss that he would need a Social Security number for his I-9 documentation, Ramirez bought a fake SSN card for $180. In February, the payroll service informed the employer that the number was false. Ramirez was deported in March.

In late January, shortly after he was converted to employee status, Ramirez fell down six steps and landed on his back. The company's president, who witnessed the fall, reported the accident to the company's workers' compensation carrier and made arrangements for Ramirez to get medical treatment. The treating physician determined that Ramirez was totally disabled.

Issues
The Industrial Board awarded benefits to Ramirez. (See Cassandra Robert's cleverly named post about the Board's decision, The Dearly Deported--Illegal Alien Status Does Not Work a Forfeiture in Delaware). The employer appealed to the Delaware Superior Court, where it made several arguments, including:

  • the employee's "fraudulent inducement" in obtaining the job disqualified him from receiving benefits;
  • because, pursuant to the federal immigration laws, Ramirez could not be lawfully hired, those laws preempted the State's workers' compensation laws; and
  • the employee's exclusion from the U.S. was the equivalent of being incarcerated, which would result in the suspension of benefits.
Judge Herlihy rejected each of the three arguments in turn and concluded that, despite his status as an illegal alien at the time of his employment, Ramirez was not disqualified from receiving workers' compensation benefits.

Nuts and Bolts
Regular readers may be mildly surprised to read that I actually side with the employee in this case. Not so much because of complicated legal reasons but more because of the basic facts. The employer hired Ramirez. The basic employment relationship involves the performance of services by the employee and the provision of certain compensation and benefits by the employer in return. One of those benefits is workers' compensation insurance.

Here, there is no dispute that Ramirez performed the services for which he was hired. Thus, the employer received the bargained-for benefit of the employment relationship. Ramirez, in return, was entitled to receive, in exchange, the benefits for which he had bargained, including wages for work performed and workers' compensation insurance.

There is no dispute that Ramirez was injured during the course and scope of his employment and there appears to be no dispute as to the extent of his injuries. Thus, it seems fair to me that he receive the benefits of the employment relationship, just as his employer did.

Feel free to disagree with me--I'm open to different opinions. Sean O'Sullivan reported the case in an excellent article in the News Journal today and notes that the case has been appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court. So we'll keep you posted.

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