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  1. Court Rules for DOL in H-1B Backpay Lawsuit

    By: Bruce Buchanan, Sebelist Buchanan Law

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    A New York federal judge, Edgardo Ramos, sided with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) in a lawsuit by private equity firm, Aleutian Capital Partners, arising out of an investigation into alleged violations of the H-1B visa program, the company liable for nearly $23,000 in back wages to two employees stating the DOL’s Administrative Review Board (ARB) properly ruled. See Aleutian Capital Partners v. Perez (S. D. NY 2017).

    Judge Ramos rejected arguments by Aleutian that it was exempt from meeting the requirement for financial analyst and H-1B participant Shakir Gangjee because the company exceeded two annual wage requirements of $60,000 through supplementary bonuses, which were “nondiscretionary payments” equal to 3 percent of Aleutian’s revenue each month. The judge found the ARB determined Aleutian did not provide documentation showing its commitment to making the bonus payments to Gangjee.

    Furthermore, Judge Ramos agreed with the ARB that the bonus structure was insufficient because Gangjee’s wages were contingent on the revenues of Aleutian.

    “The ARB’s interpretation is supported by the fact that Sec. 655.731(c)(4) requires employers seeking to make nondiscretionary payments to show ‘unequivocally’ that the required wage obligation was ‘met for prior pay periods’ and ‘will be met for each current or future pay period,” Judge Ramos wrote. “It is reasonable to conclude that such showing can be made only if the nondiscretionary payments are guaranteed and not contingent. Accordingly, the Court defers to the ARB’s interpretation.”
  2. Employer Not Obligated to Offer Return Airfare to Discharged H-1B Employee

    By Bruce Buchanan, Sebelist Buchanan Law

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    The U.S. Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board (ARB) found a consulting company was not obligated to offer or pay a fired H-1B employee’s airfare to India, her home country, because she took no initiative to leave the United States. See Vinayagam v. Cronous Solutions (ARB Case No. 15-045 Feb. 14, 2017).

    Cronous, a consulting company, took several months to place Vinayagam. Eventually, it placed her with another company as a contract worker, where she worked for a few months before Cronous’ contract expired. Several months later, Cronous shut down its business and notified Vinayagam of her termination and her need to immediately leave the United States. Vinayagam stated she needed to be paid all the salary owed for her time she was “benched” (available for employment but not employed) and requested airfare to India. Cronous’ representative said he would check on that matter.

    Thereafter, Cronous sent a letter to the USCIS asking for revocation of its approval of the I-129 petition. Two months later, the USCIS did so. Cronous continued to pay Vinayagam until the revocation was approved.

    Vinayagam continued to reside in the United States for another 1 ½ years seeking other employment and unsuccessfully petitioning for a change of status to B-2 - visitor. She conceded she made no effort to leave the United States.

    Vinayagam filed a complaint with the Department of Labor (DOL) on underpayment of wages and a lawsuit in federal court. The parties resolved the lawsuit with Vinayagam receiving $45,000 in back pay for the period of February 2008 to February 2009. Vinayagam asserted at the DOL that she was entitled to back pay continuing until September 28, 2010 because Cronous did not offer or provide payment of return transportation costs upon her discharge.

    As most readers know, normally an employer who discharges an H-1B employee must offer to pay the employee’s airfare to his/her home country. Other conditions which employers must meet to affect a bona fide termination of an H-1B employee are express termination of employment relationship with the H-1B employee and notification of the USCIS of the termination in order that the I-129 petition can be revoked.

    The ARB determined Cronous had ended its obligation to Vinayagam by paying her wages through February 2009 and notifying her of her termination. It did not need to pay her costs home or offer to do so because Vinayagam voluntarily chose to remain in the United States without a valid visa, sought employment with other employers, and unsuccessfully sought to change to a B-2 visa.

    In this case, the employer was successful in not offering return transportation costs based on these particular facts. Your company may not be so lucky if it fails to offer the return transportation costs. Therefore, employers should always offer these return transportation costs when discharging an H-1B employee.
  3. Attorney Pleads Guilty To Falsifying Visa Documents for H-1B Workers

    By: Bruce Buchanan, Sebelist Buchanan Law

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    A Virginia attorney, Sunila Dutt, pled guilty in a New Jersey federal court to criminal charges for submitting false documents to USCIS and Department of Labor and obstructing an investigation. These acts were part of a scheme to fraudulently obtain H-1B visas for foreign workers of two information technology companies, SCM Data Inc. and MMC Systems Inc.

    SCM Data and MMC Systems conspired with Dutt to falsify paperwork submitted to the federal government that stated the workers had full-time “in house” positions with the companies. In fact, SCM Data and MMC Systems would only pay the foreign IT consultants after placing them in roles working for third-party clients. Dutt also provided fabricated employment documents to the DOL after it started an audit of both companies. Furthermore, Dutt advised one of the foreign workers to lie to the USCIS about living arrangements to extend visa status.

    Dutt will be sentenced in February 2017 at which time he faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
  4. Judge Dismisses Claims Against Disney and Consulting Firms for Alleged Visa Abuse

    By: Bruce Buchanan, Sebelist Buchanan Law
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    U.S. District Judge Gregory A. Presnell agreed with Walk Disney Parks and Resorts U.S. Inc., and consulting firms, Cognizant Technology Solutions and HCL, that the former Disney employees’ allegations that Disney and the consulting firms conspired to replace Disney employees with foreign workers in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) were unsupported by the law. In so finding, the judge said claims that the consultants made false statements in applications to obtain H-1B visas for the foreign workers relied on a misunderstanding of the law, and were fatal to the RICO actions and related claims.

    Dena Moore and Leo Perrero sued Disney and Cognizant Disney and HCL, respectively, on January 25, 2016. Moore and Perrero, who are both Americans, claimed Disney conspired with the consultants to replace 200 to 300 U.S. employees with people hired under the H-1B program, which provides temporary visas for nonimmigrant skilled workers.

    The civil RICO claims against HCL and Cognizant were based on the allegation that they engaged in racketeering activity by falsely stating on required Labor Department forms that the hiring of the nonimmigrant H-1B employees would not adversely affect the working conditions of similarly situated employees. Perrero and Moore claimed their firings did just that. HCL and Cognizant argued that the requirement applied only to their own employees, not Disney’s. Judge Presnell agreed, noting the working conditions requirement mentions “its U.S. worker employees.”

    Furthermore, the judge found the certification that H-1B employees would not displace American workers does not apply to H-1B workers, who earn at least $60,000 a year and have certain education or skill levels.

    This has been a highly visible litigation with most experts expecting dismissal of the claims. Given the nature of the claims, it is expected that Moore and Perrero will appeal the dismissals.
  5. DOL Orders Payment of Over $2 Million for Violations of H-2A Program

    By Bruce Buchanan, Sebelist Buchanan Law

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    An administrative law judge (ALJ) of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) found Gonzalo Fernandez, the president and operator of Fernandez Farms, to have violated numerous laws concerning H-2A visa workers and ordered payment of over $2 million.

    The ALJ found the company required each H-2A worker to pay about $1600 from their wages in illegal kickbacks to cover the administrative costs of the H-2A program. For this violation, the ALJ ordered Fernandez to pay $410,850 to the affected workers.

    The ALJ also found Fernandez was not paying the correct piece/wage rate and overtime, nor providing free housing to H-2A workers. For these violations, Fernandez was ordered to pay approximately $650,000.

    Overall, Fernandez was ordered to pay approximately $1.1 million to the affected workers and approximately $1.3 million in civil penalties to the DOL. Furthermore, Fernandez Farms was barred from participating in the H-2A visa program for three years.

    Not only did Fernandez commit the above violations, the ALJ also found he threatened and coerced workers to deter them from reporting the violations and forced them to hide or lie to the DOL investigators.
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