A federal jury in Boston on Tuesday ruled that a construction company retaliated against a worker by reporting him to immigration officials in an effort to have him deported after he was seriously injured on the job and awarded the man $650,000 in damages.
José Martin Paz Flores had broken his leg after falling off a ladder at work in 2017 and was recovering from surgery when his boss at Tara Construction told him to come to the office because he had some money for him, according to testimony during the week-long trial. But minutes after Paz picked up an envelope containing $500, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested him for living in the country illegally, as his 2-year-old son looked on.
In a unanimous verdict after about four hours of deliberations, jurors found that the US Department of Labor, which brought a civil lawsuit on Paz’s behalf, had proved that the West Bridgewater company and its chief executive officer, Pedro Pirez, retaliated against Paz because he reported the injury, which spurred an investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The jury ordered the company to pay Paz, 42, $50,000 in compensatory damages for emotional distress and $200,000 in punitive damages, and ordered Pirez to pay an additional $400,000 in punitive damages.
“It’s a victory after a long, long fight,” said Paz, speaking through an interpreter during a telephone interview. “When workers go through difficult situations like this one they can’t stay silent.”
Paz, who entered the country illegally from Honduras in 2000 and lives in Malden, testified at trial and said he was grateful to the Labor Department attorneys who pursued the case and other lawyers and community organizations that have helped him.
“The Occupational Safety and Health Act prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who exercise their rights under the act, regardless of the employees’ immigration status,” Galen Blanton, regional administrator of OSHA, said in a statement. “This includes reporting injuries and causing an investigation or any proceeding under or related to the act. This verdict sends a strong message to employers that there will be severe consequences when they violate the law and employee rights.”
Maia Fisher, regional solicitor for the US Labor Department, said “the law protects the rights of all workers and the US Department of Labor will continue pursuing appropriate legal recourse whenever employees’ legal rights are violated.”
Audrey Richardson, a lawyer for Greater Boston Legal Services who represents Paz, said the verdict “made crystal clear that employers who think that they can take advantage of a worker’s undocumented immigration status to undermine their ability to exercise their basic workplace rights, in this case reporting an injury and getting medical care, will face serious consequences.”
Daniel J. Dwyer, a lawyer who represents Pirez and the company, said in a statement that “Tara is a model employer, and Pedro Pirez did not retaliate against Mr. Paz. We respect the jury a great deal but think that it misjudged the evidence, and we have strong legal arguments for appeal.”
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.
During opening statements at trial, Labor Department attorney Suzanne Reilly told jurors that Tara Construction orchestrated Paz’s arrest in an effort to have him deported because it had let its workers compensation insurance lapse and didn’t want to pay him while he was recovering from his injuries.
“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.”
But Dwyer told jurors that Paz “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 of 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 and a call to ICE, he said. He said Pirez, a Cuban immigrant whose father was sent to prison by Fidel Castro, knows what family suffering is and “would never do anything so cruel to someone else.”
Paz spent nearly two weeks in jail after his arrest and was facing deportation when the Labor Department intervened and launched an investigation.
“It’s proof that if we stay silent no one is going to hear us and know our situation,” said Paz, who is now a legal resident and works.
Diego Low, director of the Metrowest Worker Center, which has supported Paz since his injury, said that “undermining people’s willingness to come forward when they are injured is incredibly common, and so this victory is a real signal to the immigrant community that their rights actually can be defended.”
Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.