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Justices create framework for determining admissibility of immigration status

May 4, 2017

After reversing a trial court’s decision to admit a plaintiff’s unauthorized immigrant status as evidence in his case for decreased earning capacity damages, the Indiana Supreme Court laid out a new framework Thursday for determining when immigration status can be admissible.

In Noe Escamilla v. Shiel Sexton Company, Inc., 54S01-1610-CT-546, Noe Escamilla moved to the United States from Mexico as a teenager with his parents. His wife and three children are all U.S. citizens.

In December 2010, Escamilla’s employer, Masonry By Mohler, assigned him to work on a job at Wabash College that required him to try to raise a heavy capstone with his workers. While trying to raise the stone, Escamilla slipped on ice and fell, suffering a hernia and severely injuring his back. As a result, Escamilla now has a permanent disability that restricts him from lifting more than 20 pounds, barring him from future work as a masonry laborer.

Escamilla sued Shiel Sexton, the general contractor on the Wabash project, and retained two experts who concluded his injury decreased his lifetime earning capacity by between $578,194 and $974,421. But Shiel Sexton filed a pretrial motion arguing that Escamilla’s immigration status should bar him from recovering his decreased earning capacity, that his status as an unauthorized immigrant should be admissible because he could be deported at any time, and that the expert testimony should be excluded for failing to account for Escamilla’s immigration status. Escamilla countered with a motion in limine that asked the court to exclude any mention of his immigration status.

The Montgomery Superior Court allowed evidence of Escamilla’s status and excluded his experts’ testimony, finding that their report “improperly looked at wages in the United States, where Escamilla ‘is not legally permitted to work.’” After Escamilla brought an interlocutory appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court in a split decision, with the majority finding that “Escamilla can recover decreased earning capacity damages, and that his immigration status would be relevant and admissible if he claimed lost United States wages and faced ‘any risk’ or deportation.” The majority also affirmed the exclusion of the expert testimony.

The Indiana Supreme Court granted transfer and heard arguments in February. In a Thursday opinion, the court unanimously reversed the trial court’s ruling and instead offered a new framework for addressing the evidentiary question of when immigration status is admissible under Indiana Rule of Evidence 403.

Chief Justice Loretta Rush first held that unauthorized immigrants such as Escamilla may pursue tort claims for decreased earning capacity under Article 1, Section 12 of the Indiana Constitution, known as the Open Courts Clause.

“When Indiana law affords a remedy – like recovering decreased earning capacity – the Open Courts Clause does not permit us to close the courthouse door based solely on the plaintiff’s immigration status,” Rush wrote. “We cannot read the Open Courts Clause’s ‘every person’ guarantee to exclude unauthorized immigrants. And as long as decreased earning capacity remains recoverable in personal injury actions, it is part of administering justice ‘completely.’”

Thus, Escamilla and other similarly situated immigrants can bring their claims for decreased earning capacity before the court, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. N.L.R.B., 535 U.S. 137 (2002) does not compel a different result, Rush said.

While the court declined to make “sweeping pronouncements” about immigration policy in Escamilla’s case, the opinion laid out a framework for determining when immigration status is admissible.

First, the court held that under Rule 403, “a plaintiff’s unauthorized immigration status is inadmissible unless the proponent shows by a preponderance that the plaintiff will be deported.” Immigration status might be relevant to a decreased earning capacity, the chief justice wrote, but it also carries “a high risk of confusing the issues and some risk of unfair prejudice.”

Specifically, Rush wrote that admitting immigration status would confuse the issues by flooding the courtroom with arguments related to immigration status and deportation, creating a “collateral mini-trial” on immigration and forcing juries to consider nuanced immigration issues. Thus, unless a preponderance of the evidence shows that a defendant such as Escamilla will “more likely than not” be deported, the prejudice of his or her immigration status substantially outweighs its probative value.

Finally, the justices found that the trial court abused its discretion in barring Escamilla’s expert testimony. Thus, the high court reversed and remanded the case to apply the court’s framework to Escamilla’s specific case.

 

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