There’s a saying that “Bad facts make bad law.” At least that’s the way I was taught it. A different version: “Hard cases make bad law” has its own Wikipedia entry. While the wording is different, the meaning is the same. When the facts are extreme, they serve as a poor basis for defining general legal principles.
Here are the bad facts:
A dairy hired an employee even though it knew he was not authorized to work in the US. When he told them after two years that he had a better offer from another dairy, his employer threatened that, if he left, it would report the other dairy to federal immigration authorities. So he stayed.
Nine years later, he sued his employer for a variety of workplace violations, including failure to pay overtime or to provide meal and rest breaks. Ten weeks before the case is going to trial, the employer’s lawyer schedules a deposition of the plaintiff but arranges to have US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) take him into custody and deport him. There’s even an e-mail from the lawyer to ICE letting them know the employee “will be attending a deposition next week. If there’s an interest in apprehending him, please let me know so that we can make the necessary arrangements…” Apparently, the employee got wind of the plan and agreed to settle his case. To make matters worse, the lawyer had used this ploy on at least five other plaintiffs who were suing his clients.
The plaintiff then sued the attorney for retaliation under the Fair Labor Standards Act. He chose that statute because it allows such claims against “any person acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee.” The federal district court dismissed the claim because the lawyer did not exercise any control over the plaintiff’s employment. However, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal reversed. In doing so, it rejected the need for any economic control. It said that, while only employers can be responsible for not paying employees correctly, anyone acting on behalf of the employer can be liable for retaliation.
What the lawyer did was wrong. There are ethical rules that state that an attorney in California “shall not threaten to present criminal, administrative, or disciplinary charges to obtain an advantage in a civil dispute.” Lawyers who violate that rule or otherwise abuse their power, can be sanctioned, suspended, and even disbarred. There are also civil claims available for abuse of process and malicious prosecution. So there are penalties for this type of behavior already. However, giving plaintiff’s the right to sue their employer’s lawyers for retaliation will lead to far more problems than it will solve. Litigation is inherently contentious. Parties tend to dislike the lawyer on the other side. But in every other situation I know of, courts have ruled that there’s no right to sue the other side’s lawyer and that allowing such suits will lead to a multiplicity of litigation. The Ninth Circuit, dealing with an extreme situation, held otherwise. Like the saying goes, bad facts make bad law.
The case is Arias v. Raimondo. You can read the opinion here.