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An undocumented worker from Mexico who provided false identification when he was hired by his employer should receive workers compensation benefits for injuries he suffered on that job, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
Mario Arellano worked for L&L Enterprises in Douglas, Wyoming, and provided his employer with a Social Security card and a New Mexico driver’s license when he was hired in 2011, court records show. Four months later, Mr. Arellano was injured when he was riding in the back of a work truck, which caused him to bounce around as the vehicle was moving and hurt his back.
Mr. Arellano filed for workers comp benefits related to acute back pain and a lumbar sprain, court records show. But the Wyoming Division of Workers’ Compensation denied Mr. Arellano’s claim, finding that Mr. Arellano did not provide medical documentation to support his claim nor information to prove his residency and authorization to work in the United States.
Mr. Arellano appealed that decision to the Wyoming Office of Administrative Hearings, according to court filings. He admitted in a hearing that his Social Security card was a fake that he bought on the street, that he is a Mexican citizen, and that he “didn’t know” if he had permission to work in the United States. His driver’s license was found to be valid.
An examiner for the administrative hearing office found that Mr. Arellano proved that he suffered a back injury in the course and scope of his employment, but that Mr. Arellano failed to show that he was a covered employee of L&L under Wyoming workers comp law. Court filings show the examiner found “it hard to believe the Wyoming Legislature intended to provide coverage when fraud has been committed,” and he denied benefits to Mr. Arellano.
The Natrona County, Wyoming, District Court reversed the examiner’s decision, finding that the denial of benefits for Mr. Arellano’s claim was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with law,” records show.
L&L appealed, arguing that it could not “reasonably” believe that Mr. Arellano was allowed to work in the United States because that determination was based on false identification, records show.
But a three-judge panel of the Wyoming Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the District Court’s ruling on Thursday. The high court found that Wyoming law only requires an employer to “reasonably” determine an employee’s work status based on documentation in its possession at the time of an employee’s hire and date of injury.
Interpreting the law in that way has the benefit of protecting employers from liability cases filed by undocumented workers, the high court said.
“If illegal aliens believed by their employers to have authorization to work in this country were not employees for workers’ compensation purposes, they could sue and recover damages both from the employer and co-employees by proving ordinary negligence,” the ruling reads. “Damages would be limited only by whatever a particular injured employee could persuade a jury to award, while workers’ compensation benefits are limited. Paradoxically, therefore, an injured worker who is lawfully in this country could conceivably receive considerably less than a worker who is working illegally could recover in a tort action.”
Constitutional challenges to the opt-out provision in Oklahoma's workers compensation reform law likely won't dissuade Tennessee lawmakers from pursuing similar legislation.