José Martin Paz Flores had broken his leg after falling off a ladder at work, and his boss at Tara Construction had promised to help, telling him to come to the office at a specific time to collect a payment, Paz testified on Monday in federal court.
But minutes after Paz picked up an envelope stuffed with cash and hobbled to a friend’s truck on crutches, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested him for living in the country illegally as his 2-year-old son looked on, Paz said.
“I was destroyed,” said Paz, 42, who is at the center of a civil lawsuit brought by the US Department of Labor against Tara Construction. The government alleges that the West Bridgewater company and its chief executive officer, Pedro Pirez, retaliated against Paz because he reported the 2017 accident, triggering an investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
During opening statements on Monday, Labor Department attorney Suzanne Reilly told jurors that Tara Construction orchestrated Paz’s arrest in an effort to get him deported because it had let its workers compensation insurance lapse and didn’t want to pay Paz, who entered the country illegally from Honduras in 2000 and lives in Malden.
“They could have owned up to the consequences of what happened but they didn’t; they retaliated against an injured worker,” Reilly said. “The laws that protect employees apply to all employees, whether they are documented or not.”
She urged jurors to find that the company retaliated against Paz and is seeking punitive and compensatory damages for his emotional distress “to ensure that justice is done.”
But Daniel J. Dwyer, a lawyer who represents Tara Construction and Pirez, said, “The nutshell of this case is that Jose Martin Paz Flores is a man who sowed confusion about who he was, very likely deliberately, because he was an undocumented worker who had been ordered deported and had something of a past.”
Paz went by the name Martin Paz and provided a fake Social Security card and green card to get hired, Dwyer said. The company became concerned when the hospital called after Paz’s accident, indicating that he went by a different name, Jose Flores.
Pirez asked his cousin, a Boston police detective, to investigate Paz’s true identity, which led to the discovery that he was in the country illegally, triggering a call to ICE, he said. He described Pirez as a Cuban immigrant, whose father was sent to prison by Fidel Castro, and that he knows what family suffering is, and “would never do anything so cruel to someone else.”
“Nobody meant to do anything in getting to the bottom of who he was,” said Dwyer, adding that there was no retaliation by the company. “They had to do it and when they did it, the truth came out. And when the truth came out, a sad thing happened for Mr. Paz. He was arrested by ICE ... and now he has thrown the blame on someone else.”
Dwyer told jurors that Tara Construction had paid more than $375,000 for workers’ compensation insurance but learned that its coverage had lapsed the day before Paz’s accident, for failing to make a $2,000 payment. He said the company quickly paid the bill and believed its coverage had been reinstated.
On the morning of March 29, 2017, Paz, a married father of five, said he was working as a drywall taper at a Roxbury apartment complex when he fell from a ladder and broke his leg. He was rushed to the hospital by ambulance and underwent surgery.
Paz testified that Pirez was the first person to visit him at the hospital and the two talked about his injuries and when he had last visited his family in Honduras.
“I told him the only thing I need is for you to help me recover,” Paz said. He told jurors it was the first time he had an accident at work and was worried because he was the sole provider for his wife and children.
When Pirez was about to leave, he patted him on the shoulder and told him, “I’m going to help you out,” Paz said. He said Pirez didn’t tell him that the company’s workers’ compensation insurance had lapsed, but learned about it later when he filed a claim.
After the accident, Paz stopped by the company once to pick up paychecks. Pirez then directed him to come to the office on May 10, 2017, when he handed him an envelope with cash and watched through a glass door as he climbed into a truck alongside his 2-year-old son and his friend, Paz testified.
He said they were stopped by ICE agents about a block or two away from the office. Agents warned him that his son would be placed in state custody if his wife didn’t come to get him. He said he spent two weeks in custody at a Boston jail.
During cross-examination, Paz admitted he worked for numerous companies and provided a fake Social Security card and green card to get hired. He said he was hired by Tara Construction just two days before the accident but had worked for them a couple of times before.
Paz was asked if he knew that the Labor Department secretary had intervened on his behalf to keep him in the United States after his arrest so he could testify against Pirez.
“I don’t know who intervened, but here I am,” Paz said.