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NY Workers' Comp Lawyer Lectures on Balbuena

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

I had the pleasure of lecturing at St. John’s Law School last Friday in Professor Dave Gregory’s Employment Law class. Besides the general overview that I usually do on the workers’ compensation law, I specifically focused on the recent NY Court of Appeals split decision in Balbuena which was announced on February 21, 2006.
In my mind, Balbuena is the most important labor decision which will come down from the Court this year. It may in fact be the most important of all the Court’s decisions this year. Essentially, the Court held that a worker’s status as an illegal immigrant did not prevent him from receiving benefits for lost wages in a personal injury law suit. Had this case gone the other way, which it did in one appellate court below, I can guarantee you that workers’ comp insurance carriers would have used it to deny workers’ comp to undocumented residents before the ink was dry.
Putting aside the technical legal premise upon which the majority opinion rests ( the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act does not preempt NY occupational safety laws), the macro economic issue the Court wrestled with was really how our country deals with illegal immigration juxtaposed against our need for workers who will do jobs that many Americans refuse to do. This case embodies the issues that President Bush is trying to remedy with his current “guest worker” proposal. The majority opinion is scholarly and a must read for any attorney interested in worker rights. As a result of this win for injured workers, employers will be unable to further exploit undocumented workers. Their jobs are already dangerous enough.
Unfortunately, the dissent by Judges Read and Smith was not nearly as persuasive. It focused on why the Court should not sanction “illegal contracts”. Where’s Scalia when you need him? But then again, some legal experts are predicting that this case might go all the way to the US Supreme Court, so good old Antonin may get his shot yet.

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