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Torres v. Precision Industries, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

September 6, 2019

Ricardo Torres, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Precision Industries, Inc., Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued: March 21, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee at Jackson. No. 1:16-cv-01319-S. Thomas Anderson, District Judge.

         ARGUED:

          Steve Wilson, THE STEVE WILSON FIRM, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellant.

          James L. Holt, Jr., JACKSON, SHIELDS, YESIER & HOLT, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Steve Wilson, THE STEVE WILSON FIRM, Memphis, Tennessee, Bryce Ashby, DONATI LAW, PLLC, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellant.

          James L. Holt, Jr., Paula J. Jackson, JACKSON, SHIELDS, YESIER & HOLT, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellee. Christopher Ho, Marisa Díaz, LEGAL AID AT WORK, San Francisco, California, for Amicus Curiae.

          Before: GRIFFIN, KETHLEDGE, and THAPAR, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          THAPAR, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Federal courts are not in the business of answering hypothetical questions. Let alone hypothetical questions of constitutional law. In this case, the district court held that Tennessee law was preempted. But in doing so, the court skipped past the question whether state law had been violated in the first place. Under well-established principles of constitutional avoidance, we decline to address the hypothetical presented by this appeal. Accordingly, we vacate the district court's judgment.

         To understand our decision, one need only know the procedural history of this case. In 2016, Ricardo Torres sued his former employer, Precision Industries, alleging that the company had fired him for seeking benefits under Tennessee's Workers' Compensation Law. Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-101 et seq. The district court held a bench trial, during which Precision argued that it had not retaliated against Torres and that, even if it had, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 preempted any remedy because Torres had not been authorized to work in the United States. Pub. L. No. 99-603, 100 Stat. 3359. At the end of trial, the district court granted judgment to Precision on the preemption ground without making any factual findings as to the state law claim. We review that decision de novo. See Kehoe Component Sales Inc. v. Best Lighting Prods., Inc., 796 F.3d 576, 585 (6th Cir. 2015).

         As usual in cases about preemption, we start with the Constitution. The Supremacy Clause provides that "[the] Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof . . . shall be the supreme Law of the Land . . . any Thing in the Constitution or laws of any state to the Contrary notwithstanding." U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2. In theory, the Clause may "only declare[] a truth, which flows immediately and necessarily from the institution of a Federal Government." The Federalist No. 33, at 207 (Alexander Hamilton) (J. Cooke ed., 1961). But in practice, it supplies an important "rule of decision," which instructs that courts "must not give effect to state laws that conflict with federal laws." Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Ctr., Inc., 135 S.Ct. 1378, 1383 (2015). That rule has come to be known as the doctrine of preemption.

         Over the years, the Supreme Court has constructed an elaborate preemption taxonomy: express versus implied; field versus conflict; impossibility versus obstacle. See, e.g., Oneok, Inc. v. Learjet, Inc., 135 S.Ct. 1591, 1595 (2015). Our decision, however, does not turn on any specific category of preemption, so we can cut straight to the chase. The question (as presented by the parties) is whether the Immigration Reform and Control Act ...


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