Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Politics Of A Protective Order

Another in the seemingly never ending series of labor cases favoring undocumented workers is Rengifo v. Erevos Enterprises Inc. (Case No. 06 Civ. 4266, S.D.N.Y. - 3/20/07).

In Rengifo, Plaintiff commenced an action against his former employers to recover, inter alia, unpaid overtime wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York Labor Law. In an effort to impeach credibility, Defendants sought disclosure of Plaintiff's social security number, immigration status, tax returns, and authorization to work in the United States. Plaintiff moved for and was granted a protective order which precluded Defendants from obtaining or using any such information during discovery or at trial.

The Court held that the personal information sought was collateral and not relevant to the issue of whether Plaintiff had worked overtime as alleged. Even though the Plaintiff had submitted an incomplete set of pay stubs and no records of hours worked to support his claim, the Court found that Defendants (as employers) possessed sufficient time and payroll data to determine if and how much overtime was worked. Further, the Court relied on its own precedent in concluding that inquiry into a plaintiff’s immigration and work authorization status, when irrelevant to any material issue at bar, posed a danger of intimidation that would inhibit plaintiffs from pursuing legitimate claims. Essentially, the Court utilized a balancing test to conclude that Defendants’ right to impeach Plaintiff’s credibility was outweighed by the public interest in allowing undocumented employees to enforce their rights in a climate free from the fear of being reported to immigration authorities.

On the surface, these types of cases are problematic because they generally elicit a visceral reaction from those on both sides of the illegal immigration debate; they also give rise to allegations of judicial "politicking" in favor of a particular group. I'm not going to add fuel to the fire either way since it's a no-win situation. However, when viewed objectively (and I do try SO hard), the Court’s decision in Rengifo appears correct.

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