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International human rights body rules in favor of clients represented by Transnational Clinic in decade-long case

December 21, 2016

This week the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the intergovernmental Organization of American States, after a 10-year legal battle released its decision from November 30, 2016 in favor of two undocumented workers who were denied access to justice and the right to non-discrimination after being injured on the job while working in the United States. The workers were represented by the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Transnational Legal Clinic, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Employment Law Project.

The case was filed on November 1, 2006 on behalf of Leopoldo Zumaya and Francisco Berumen Lizalde. Zumaya, a farmworker from Pennsylvania, was forced to accept a settlement for less than one-third of the value of his claim, and Lizalde, a painter from Kansas, was criminally prosecuted for visa fraud, jailed, and deported in retaliation for having filed for workers’ compensation.

According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ decision, Zumaya and Lizalde suffered harm because of discrimination in the U.S. treatment of undocumented workers following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Hoffman Plastics v. NLRB

“An international human rights body has heard our clients’ story and recognized their right to non-discrimination,” said Sarah Paoletti, Practice Professor of Law and Director of the Transnational Legal Clinic. The decision from the IACHR states that the U.S. government is responsible for violating Zumaya and Lizalde’s rights and recommends the federal government provide them both with monetary compensation, prohibit distinctions in employment and labor rights based on immigration status, prohibit employer inquiries into the immigration status of workers, and establish a procedure for undocumented workers involved in workers’ compensation proceedings.

“I’m grateful for the help, and the opportunity to try to help others who face this discrimination,” said Zumaya. “Despite all we’ve gone through, we need to keep fighting for others.” 

Together with a team from the American Civil Liberties Union (initially led by Penn Law alumnus Chandra Bhatnagar L’01) and the National Employment Law Project, 10 Transnational Legal Clinic students worked actively on the case.

“This decision reflects a decade worth of work with and on behalf of our clients, and on behalf of all of workers — documented and undocumented alike — negatively impacted by a system that fails to ensure full access to remedies for workplace violations,” Paoletti said. “Our work now is to ensure the Commission’s recommendations become a reality.”

Since its founding in 2006, the Transnational Legal Clinic at Penn Law has represented individuals seeking asylum and other forms of immigration relief from across the globe and worked alongside and on behalf of international human rights and community-based organizations before regional and international human rights mechanisms on a range of rights-based issues, particularly as they relate to migrants and internally-displaced persons.