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Mendoza v. Ruesga

December 16, 2008


APPEALS from a judgment of the Superior Court of San Diego County, John S. Meyer, Judge. Affirmed in part; reversed in part. (Super. Ct. No. GIC866229).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mcconnell, P. J.


California's immigration consultants act (ICA) (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 22440 et seq.)*fn1 regulates non-attorneys who offer advice or assistance to a particularly vulnerable population, immigrants seeking legal residency in the United States. Plaintiffs' appeal involves questions of first impression: (1) whether there is a right to a jury trial on a cause of action for violation of the ICA, and (2) whether the unclean hands doctrine may be raised as an affirmative defense to an ICA cause of action. We answer the second question in the negative and partially reverse the judgment on the complaint for prejudicial error. For purposes of retrial, we confirm that there is a right to a jury trial on ICA claims for damages.

Defendant does not challenge the judgment against him on his cross-complaint. We find his issues pertaining to the judgment on the complaint either unpersuasive or moot in light of our holding in plaintiffs' appeal.


In May 2006 plaintiffs Ramon Mendoza, Moises Juarez, Jose Angel Saldaña, Maria Esther Reynoso, Ricardo Chavez and Martin Fernando Nuño filed a complaint against Jose Ruesga for violation of the ICA, breach of fiduciary duty and intentional infliction of emotional distress.*fn2 Plaintiffs are admittedly undocumented immigrants. The complaint alleged Ruesga acted as an immigration consultant within the meaning of the ICA, and he charged each plaintiff $16,000 to get them work permits and legal residence in the United States.*fn3 The plaintiffs allegedly learned later that they did not qualify for the benefits Ruesga sought on their behalves and their applications "have been or will be denied."*fn4

Further, the complaint alleged Ruesga violated the ICA by failing to provide plaintiffs with written contracts (§ 22442, subd. (a)); failing to display a required notice (§ 22442.2); failing to provide them with copies of documents and completed forms (§ 22443, subd. (a)); failing to post a bond with the Secretary of State (§ 22443.1); making false and misleading statements to plaintiffs and providing false documents in support of plaintiffs' applications (§ 22444, subd. (a)); and representing he had contacts inside the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (Immigration Services) (§ 22444, subd. (c)). The complaint prayed for civil penalties for each violation of the ICA (§ 22445, subd. (a)(1) & (2)), actual damages trebled (§ 22446.5, subd. (a)), and attorney fees (§ 22446.5, subd. (a)). Although injunctive relief is available in an action under the ICA (§ 22446.5, subd. (a)), plaintiffs did not seek such relief.*fn5

In his answer, Ruesga raised the affirmative defense of unclean hands. He also filed a cross-complaint against plaintiffs Mendoza, Juarez, Reynoso and Chavez.*fn6 The cross-complaint arose from an incident on February 1, 2006, in which cross-defendants allegedly held Ruesga against his will in Reynoso's office and forced him "to sign two false documents" in which he purportedly made admissions and "agreed to pay sums of money to [cross-defendants]."

Plaintiffs moved in limine to preclude a jury trial on their claim for compensatory damages under the ICA. The court granted the motion, but it nonetheless later allowed a special verdict form in which the jury was required to decide ICA issues. Plaintiffs also moved to exclude evidence pertaining to the unclean hands defense, but the court denied the motion.*fn7

The evidence showed plaintiffs were unqualified for amnesty because they did not first come to the United States before January 1, 1982. Generally, the evidence also showed Ruesga told them he could nonetheless help them obtain legal status in this country, he had inside contacts at Immigration Services, and he could expunge any deportations or other impediments to obtaining amnesty. Ruesga provided plaintiffs with questionnaires that sought personal information such as addresses and employment histories, and they filled them out and returned them to him. He later gave them completed application forms, which claimed they first came to this country before 1982, and indicated where they should sign them. Plaintiffs could not or did not read the applications, but signed them under penalty of perjury and sent them to Immigration Services.

Plaintiffs eventually realized Ruesga's supposed contacts in Immigration Services would not save the day. Immigration Services began calling them in for interviews and demanding records showing they met the residency requirement. Ruesga provided at least some of the plaintiffs with letters he signed that vouched for their character and falsely stated he had known them since 1982, and letters from a farm labor contractor that falsely stated they worked for the company for a period beginning in 1982. Plaintiffs, however, learned those documents would not suffice and their applications were doomed.

Ruesga admitted he took plaintiffs' money for immigration matters, and he did not comply with procedural requirements of the ICA. Ruesga also admitted giving plaintiffs the questionnaires. He essentially testified, however, that he was a go-between between plaintiffs and a "Mr. Molina," with whom Ruesga met in Tijuana or near the border.

Ruesga said he gave plaintiffs' money to Molina, but did not get a receipt. Ruesga gave plaintiffs' completed questionnaires to Molina without reviewing them, and Molina gave the completed applications to him for delivery to plaintiffs. When asked whether he gave plaintiffs letters falsely stating he had known them since 1982, his attorney advised him to invoke the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

Ruesga admitted telling plaintiffs their cases were "guaranteed," but said he was merely relaying Molina's position. Ruesga testified that Molina told him the applications were legal, and in turn he told the plaintiffs they were legal. Ruesga also testified he told a plaintiff he would not get involved unless the applications were legal because he "would get burned." Ruesga testified that Mendoza asked him to provide false evidence. He also admitted, however, that Mendoza and Reynoso told him plaintiffs wanted only truthful evidence.

Despite Ruesga's insistence the applications were legal, he argued plaintiffs had unclean hands because they knew they were unqualified for amnesty, they submitted false information in their applications, they signed applications falsely stating they came here before 1982, and they insisted that Ruesga provide them with fraudulent evidence to support their applications.

On the complaint, the jury in its special verdict found Ruesga acted as an immigration consultant for plaintiffs, and he violated the ICA in several procedural respects, such as by failing to provide written contracts and post a bond, but the violations were not a legal cause of plaintiffs' damages. The jury also found Ruesga made false and misleading statements to plaintiffs that he had contacts inside Immigration Service and he "could erase or remove any prior record [plaintiffs] had with Immigration authorities," and the statements were the legal cause of their damages. The jury, however, found plaintiffs' unclean hands barred the recovery of damages for violation of the ICA.

Further, on the breach of fiduciary duty cause of action, the jury found Ruesga was plaintiffs' agent, he breached his duties to them, the breach was a legal cause of their damages, and their conduct did not bar recovery. The jury awarded Mendoza $7,500 and each of the other plaintiffs $8,000, which was one-half of what they paid Ruesga. The jury also found ...

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