WASHINGTON - Ronald Hoffman's journey to the U.S. Supreme Court began without any grand plan, with no sense that there was a weighty principle or national issue at stake.
Instead, he simply did not think his company, Hoffman Plastic Compounds Inc., should have to pay $119,000 in back wages to a former worker. A government agency had ruled that Hoffman fired several workers because they were part of a union organizing drive, but Hoffman said that was not true, and furthermore, he said he did not have the money.
So the president of the Paramount, Calif., PVC compounder decided in 1998 to start fighting. Hoffman said the workers were let go for economic reasons, and fighting the case was cheaper than paying the back wages, he said.
First, the firm appealed the National Labor Relations Board decision. Then, it appealed each of two lower court rulings that sided with the agency. Finally, on the morning of Jan. 15, the case came to a head as the nine justices of the highest court gaveled the courtroom to order and took up his case, Hoffman Plastic Compound Inc. vs. National Labor Relations Board.
Thus far, Hoffman has spent $45,000 in legal fees.
The arguments before the justices have nothing to do with plastic - the key legal argument centers on the rights of illegal immigrant workers.
It all started in 1989, when Hoffman laid off a minimum-wage blender operator named Jose Castro, along with eight others. Hoffman said his firm sent a letter calling the workers back a few months later, but NLRB said the letter was not specific enough.
NLRB said the firm violated labor laws, and ordered the workers reinstated and given back pay. In Castro's case, that is $66,000 plus interest. But then the central question emerged: Castro admitted at an NLRB back-pay hearing that he was in the United States illegally and had used fake documents to get his job.
``Jose had a birth certificate that said he was born in El Paso,'' Hoffman said. ``Unbeknownst to us, I didn't have any idea that he was not the person on the birth certificate.''
Hoffman argues that that admission absolves the firm of any responsibility to pay back wages. The NLRB said no - the company has to pay back wages up to the point it learned Castro was illegal, otherwise employers would have an incentive to hire illegal workers because such employees would have less legal protection and could be easily abused.
A law professor who wrote an American Bar Association summary of the case said that, either way it ends up, it probably will not have a huge impact on labor law. But NLRB needs some guidance because lower courts have split on the issue, which is probably why the high court took the case, said Barbara Fick, an associate professor of law at Notre Dame University Law School in Indiana.
``[There are] conflicting lower courts, two important federal statutes, and it is an issue that is not going to go away,'' she said. ``And, the labor movement has been making a push toward unionization of newly arrived immigrants.''
Justices seemed split during the hour-long oral argument.
Justice David Souter suggested that deference was owed to the agency, and said that NLRB needs to be able to send a message to wayward employers that would take advantage of illegal workers. But Justice Antonin Scalia said he was skeptical that taking advantage of illegals is ``uppermost'' in employers' minds.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said there is no benefit to employers to hire an illegal worker, in cases like this, because companies don't know the worker is illegal. But Justice Stephen Breyer said that under Hoffman's theory, if a company checks documents, hires illegals and then proceeds to run a ``sweatshop,'' the company cannot be punished retroactively for violating labor laws.
An NLRB spokesman said Castro, whose real name is Samuel Perez, is living in Mexico.