Tennessee employers take note—undocumented workers who can’t return to work because of their immigration status can still sue you for retaliatory discharge. In a case of first impression, the Tennessee Court of Appeals held on August 5, 2014 that an “unauthorized alien” has standing to bring a retaliatory discharge claim against an employer under Tennessee law.

In Torres v. Precision Industries, Inc., Precision Industries employed Ricardo Torres at a parts manufacturing plant for the automotive industry in Whiteville, Tennessee. Torres was not a U.S. citizen and not legally eligible to work in the U.S. at the time of his employment.

Torres was hurt while on the job, and after having trouble pursuing workers’ compensation, hired an attorney. After his employer got wind he had hired an attorney, his employer (Precision Industries) confronted him about his workers’ compensation claim and his decision to hire an attorney, and then subsequently fired him.

Torres filed a lawsuit for retaliatory discharge for asserting a workers’ compensation claim. The defendants later moved for summary judgment on the basis that because Torres was an undocumented worker, he was “not capable of performing the job,” had no legal right to a job, and therefore could not maintain a retaliatory discharge claim in Tennessee. The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment.

Torres appealed, and the Tennessee Court of Appeals held that he, in fact, did have standing to pursue a retaliatory discharge claim under Tennessee law and sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

“[W]e find that depriving unauthorized aliens of an avenue to bring a retaliatory discharge claim could potentially increase the incentive of employers to hire illegal workers that they could terminate if a workers’ compensation claim was filed . . . [and this would defeat] the goals and policies of the immigration laws and Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Act.” 

The opinion noted that while this was a case of first impression in Tennessee, federal courts have held that undocumented workers have standing to bring various employment related lawsuits under Title VII, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the National Labor Relations Act.

Of course, employers should not employ individuals not authorized to be in this country. But if they do, the Torres opinion should remind them that simply because an individual is an undocumented worker does not mean that individual lacks standing to take the employer to Tennessee or federal court for alleged employment law violations.