A federal jury in the District of Massachusetts recently found that a Massachusetts-based contractor unlawfully retaliated against an immigrant employee following a work injury, resulting in the employee’s detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”). The jury awarded the employee $50,000 in compensatory damages and $600,000 in punitive damages, highlighting the severe consequences for workplace retaliation.
Allegations of Retaliation Against Employee
According to a complaint filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts on February 27, 2019, an immigrant employee suffered a work injury when he fell from a ladder in March of 2017. After the injury was reported to his employer, the employee reported the incident to the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”).
Following the report of safety concerns, the employer initiated an immigration investigation that led to the employee’s detainment by ICE. Based on text message and phone records, the employer arranged for ICE officers to meet the employee at the employer’s place of business, and the employer did not object to the employee’s arrest at that location. A subsequent investigation by OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program concluded that the employer’s actions constituted retaliation against the employee and was therefore unlawful.
Under U.S. Labor Law, reports giving rise to OSHA proceedings are protected activities under Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), which prohibits retaliation against employees for reporting workplace violations. The OSH Act prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who exercise their rights under the Act, regardless of the employee’s immigration status. The OSH Act provides safe and healthy workplaces for workers in the United States, and OSHA acts to ensure that workplace conditions in this country remain safe for all workers.
Jury Awards Substantial Verdict Against Employer
The lawsuit against the employer went to trial and was recently decided by a jury, which awarded the employee $50,000 in compensatory damages and $600,000 in punitive damages. Specifically, the jury assessed $200,000 in punitive damages against the employer’s company and $400,000 against the individual employer who reported the employee to ICE. According to Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda, “[t]he Department of Labor will not tolerate retaliation against employees who complain of workplace abuses, including when an employer seeks to use an employee’s perceived immigration status as a way to intimidate workers. Successful enforcement of worker protection laws depends on workers being empowered and feeling safe enough to speak out for themselves and their fellow workers. If workers are brave enough to come forward, we will use all legal tools we have to protect them.”
Verdict Highlights Rights of Immigrant Workers to Report Workplace Violations
The verdict sends a strong message to employers who seek retaliation against employees who exercise their rights under the law. Further, the verdict highlights that an employee’s immigration status has no bearing on their ability to exercise their rights under labor law to report workplace violations in the United States.