New Jersey Superior Court Determines that an Incompletely Translated Notice from the State’s Department of Labor Deprived a Seasonal Worker of Due Process

On September 28, 2013, the New Jersey Superior Court’s Appellate Division determined that the state’s Department of Labor violated the due process rights of a Spanish-speaking seasonal employee when it failed to deliver fully translated notices of its decisions. The case Genaro Alicea v. Board of Review concerns a Puerto Rican seasonal worker who allegedly received overpaid unemployment benefits amounting to $17,802 from 2004 to 2008, as a result of fraud.

The opinion states that Alicea denied receiving unemployment benefits for the years 2004, 2005 and 2006 but he was not provided with the opportunity to have a hearing to express this. The Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s Board of Review dismissed his case twice for untimely filing and for failure to show good cause for missing the deadline. Alicea filed his appeal 24 days after the 10-day deadline to respond purportedly because he did not understand the Board’s determinations, which were written in English. The state’s Department of Labor sent four notices to Alicea including a Spanish translation of the section outlining the deadline for presenting an appeal, and a sentence in Spanish stating that he could request a Spanish translation of the entire notice. Alicea claimed that he did not notice these details because he thought the entire notice was in English. Although he had two hearings, the merits of his appeal were never discussed.

The New Jersey Superior Court determined that translating the deadlines and encouraging the claimant to request assistance in Spanish was not enough to protect Alicea’s due process rights because he was not given the opportunity to know or understand the substantive decision taken by the board. The notices deprived the claimant of due process because they did not include a complete translation, which would have allowed him to request a hearing on the merits and would have given him a fair opportunity to decide whether to file an appeal.

The Court determined that the claimant had a good cause for exemption because the department had the duty to send notices in Spanish to Puerto Rican seasonal workers. This decision was based on the due process rights for seasonal workers as set out in Rivera v. Board of Review. Rivera v. Bd. of Review, New Jersey Dep’t of Labor, 127 N.J. 578, 606 A.2d 1087 (1992). In Rivera, the NJ Supreme Court established that English-only notices sent to Puerto Rican migrant workers could not be reasonably calculated to provide adequate notice. Also, including a sentence in Spanish directing the claimant to seek a translation immediately if they do not speak English is insufficient notice. Because migrant seasonal workers tend to earn low wages and often have lower levels of education, the court reasoned that Spanish translations are required to ensure that such workers do not suffer severe disadvantage. The court argued that the due-process clause requirements depend on the context in which notice is given.

If you believe that you have a labor claim and have been wrongly denied your right to appeal a decision, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.