This question was answered last week by the 9th Circuit of Appeal in the case of Arias v. Raimondo, (2017 BL 214215, 9th Cir., No. 15-16120, 6/22/17). This case arose from an earlier lawsuit in 2006 wherein Jose Arias sued his former employer Angelo Dairy in State Superior Court for various wage and hour violations, including failure to provide overtime, rest and meal periods, and under PAGA. The case had been hotly contested for over five years before it had been finally set for trial for August 15, 2011.
Ten weeks before trial, however, the Angelos’ attorney, Anthony Raimondo, hatched an ”underhanded plan” to have Immigration and Custom Enforcement (“ICE”) arrest and deport Arias at an upcoming deposition. Evidently, after Plaintiff Arias became aware of the plot, he instead agreed to settle the case to avoid the threat of deportation hanging over him and his family. It seemed liked the plot had worked.
However, two years later on May 8, 2013, Plaintiff Arias filed a federal
lawsuit against his former employer and their attorney for retaliation
under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Although Angelo Dairy and its
owners settled their part of this case early on, Arias continued his case
against the attorney on the theory that he, acting as the Angelos’
agent, retaliated against him, by trying to him deported during the earlier lawsuit.
Although the FLSA primary wage and hour obligations fall squarely on the shoulders on the employers, the 9th Circuit held that the anti-relation provision of the FLSA, was specifically also applied to any agent or “person acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee.” As such, the 9th Circuit rejected Mr. Raimondo’s argument that because he was never Arias’s actual employer, he could not be held liable for retaliation under the FLSA. There is no current word yet if Mr. Raimondo will try to seek review by the United States Supreme Court.
Regardless, this case presents several lessons that all employers should heed. First off, an employer must try to avoid temptation, during the heat of the litigation battle, to create additional risk for the company and, instead focus on narrowing the issues involved and winning a case on its merits. Involving federal authorities in a state law dispute not only raises certain moral and ethical concerns, but may also be a double-edged sword. A telephone call to ICE by an employer to report that one of its employees may not be legally entitled to work in the US, may lead ICE itself to also wonder about the reporting employer’s I-9 and employment verification practices. Most importantly, as evident by the Arias case, an employer must analyze and appreciate there are many protections under both federal and state law that prevent retaliatory conduct after a lawsuit or claim had been filed by the employee.
Lastly, any person involved in making HR decisions, whether as an employee or as attorney, must be cognizant that their own actions and electronic communications may be later scrutinized. In reaching its opinion, the Ninth Circuit Court’s opinion quotes from various text messages sent by Mr. Raimondo to ICE and other attorneys not only where he describes his deportation plot, but where Mr. Raimondo admits doing the same thing on five other occasions. Ouch. As stated by the Court, the FLSA is “remedial and humanitarian in purpose. We are not here dealing with mere chattels or articles of trade but with the rights of those who toil, of those who sacrifice a full measure of their freedom and talents to the use and profit of others… Such a statute must not be interpreted or applied in a narrow, grudging manner.”