A company suspended workers’ comp benefits for an injured employee, claiming he was an undocumented worker. It was up to a state court to decide whether the worker had to prove he had a right to work in the U.S. or if the burden of proving he couldn’t work legally was on the company.
David Cruz worked as a truck driver for Kennett Square Specialties, a mushroom farm in Pennsylvania.
On July 19, 2008, Cruz felt something snap in his lower back while loading barrels that weighed up to 20 pounds onto his truck.
Doctors said Cruz suffered a herniated disk and that he shouldn’t lift anything weighing more than 15 pounds and shouldn’t stretch, bend or reach.
The company told Cruz it didn’t have any jobs available that fit those restrictions. Beginning Aug. 8, 2008, Cruz no longer reported to work.
The employer issued temporary workers’ compensation benefits starting on that date and paid them for one month. After that, the company stopped paying the benefits and issued a formal denial of compensation notice.
Cruz filed a claim the next day, seeking compensation for lost wages and medical bills. The employer answered the claim, denying him all workers’ comp benefits. The case went before a workers’ compensation judge (WCJ).
At a hearing. an attorney for the company asked Cruz questions about his work status in the U.S. Cruz said he was born in Ecuador and came to the U.S. ten years ago. After making those statements, Cruz’s attorney objected to any further questions involving his citizenship or ability to work, but the WCJ overruled the objection.
The company’s attorney then asked if Cruz was a naturalized citizen of the U.S. or whether he was an undocumented worker. On advice of his attorney, Cruz invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and didn’t answer the question. The company didn’t provide any other evidence to show if Cruz was an undocumented worker.
In his decision, the WCJ stated:
- Cruz’s injury was work-related
- the extent of the injury left him partially disabled
- Kennett Square Specialties was ordered to pay all of his reasonable and necessary medical expenses, and
- Cruz’s wage compensation was suspended because the “employer has met its burden to establish that [Cruz] was not a United States citizen, and that he was not authorized to work in this country.”
Cruz appealed this decision to the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB).
Regarding the question of Cruz’s citizenship, the WCAB cited the general legal principle that a party can’t carry its burden of proof in a civil proceeding merely by relying on someone’s failure to testify. Therefore, the WCAB found the company didn’t meet its burden of proving that Cruz wasn’t a citizen because it based that solely on his refusal to answer questions during the hearing.
A state court affirmed the WCAB’s decision. Kennett Square Specialties appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Who has burden of proof?
The Supreme Court said employees have the burden of proving two things in workers’ comp cases:
- the employee was injured in the course of employment, and
- the injury resulted in a loss of earning power.
Regarding the question in this case, the court wrote:
“A claimant’s eligibility to lawfully work in the United States is not a relevant consideration in establishing either of these factors. We therefore reject Employer’s assertion that a claimant, as part of his or her burden of proof in a claim petition, is required to establish his employment eligibility status under federal immigration law.”
The court noted it was Kennett Square Specialties which sought to suspend Cruz’s benefits, therefore the burden of proof laid on the company.
Despite that, the company also argued that Cruz’s testimony that he was born in another country and had moved to the U.S. 10 years ago, and his refusal to answer any more questions about his citizenship amounted to proof that he wasn’t able to lawfully work in the U.S.
The court said that wasn’t enough to prove whether Cruz was legally eligible to work in the U.S. or not:
“Merely because [Cruz] was born in a foreign country and arrived here over a decade ago does not ipso facto establish that he is not a U.S. citizen, or not otherwise eligible to work in this country.”
So the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Cruz should receive medical and wage benefits under workers’ compensation. This ruling is similar to what courts in other states have found in other workers’ comp cases in which an employer tried to suspend benefits based on whether the employee was an undocumented worker.
What do you think about the court’s ruling? Let us know in the comments.
(Cruz v. Kennett Square Specialties, Supreme Court of PA, No. 69 MAP 2012, 7/21/14)