Gamez v. Industrial Commission of Arizona – 8/10/2006

August 16, 2006

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Upholds Administrative Law Judge’s Award Denying Workers’ Compensation Benefits.

Jose Luis Gonzalez Gamez, an undocumented immigrant, suffered an injury to his lower back while working under a false name and social security number as a finisher for a furniture company. After initially accepting Gamez’ claim for workers’ compensation and providing temporary compensation and medical benefits, the State Compensation Fund (“SCF”) issued a notice of claim status terminating medical benefits and temporary compensation without permanent disability. Gamez requested a hearing to protest that decision, claiming that he was in fact permanently disabled. During the hearing, Gamez and SCF each presented medical experts whose testimony and opinions conflicted. Ultimately, the ALJ accepted the opinions of SCF’s medical expert as being more credible and held that Gamez was not permanently disabled. The Court of Appeals upheld this determination stating that the Court would not disturb an ALJ’s resolution of conflicting medical evidence unless it is “wholly unreasonable.” Because the ALJ’s decision, in this case, was not unfounded, the Court of Appeals affirmed.

In a lengthy concurring opinion, Judge Barker agreed that the award denying benefits should be affirmed, but argued that the Court of Appeals should have ruled on the issue of whether undocumented immigrants are entitled to worker’s compensation benefits under the Arizona Workers’ Compensation Act (“the Act”). Ariz. Rev. Stat. (“A.R.S.”) § 23-901(6)(b). According to Judge Barker, the underlying issue of whether illegal immigrants qualify for coverage under the Act had been fully briefed by the parties and amicus. Moreover, because the Industrial Commission confirmed in its briefing that it treats illegal aliens as “employees” under the Act, the issue is a matter of significant public importance and likely to recur. Turning to the merits of the question, Judge Barker argued that under the principles of statutory construction, an undocumented immigrant is not an “employee” within the meaning of ARS § 23-901(6)(b), and therefore Gamez is not entitled to benefits under the Act.

Judge Ehrlich wrote the opinion and was joined by Judge Portley; Judge Barker concurred separately.