EJC Brings Georgetown Wage Thief to Justice

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In addition to our advocacy victories, EJC has also had a banner year on the legal services end of the office! This year, through our in-house litigation, referred cases, and our pro se Workers’ Rights Clinic, we have assisted clients in recovering well over $800,000 (and we are still counting!).

Although we are very proud of our monetary accomplishments, one of the most significant legal services victories of the year was important for reasons other than the amount of money recovered. With the assistance of co-counsel from James & Hoffman, EJC helped a worker stand up to and ultimately prevail against an unscrupulous employer who had threatened and intimidated him for trying to recover the wages the employer had stolen from him.

In 2010, on behalf of a handful of workers, EJC filed a case for wage theft against Epicurean & Company, a restaurant that contracts with Georgetown University. The owner of the restaurant had failed to pay workers many hours of overtime; for some workers, those failures were so frequent that their wages fell below the minimum wage. After the lawsuit was filed, the owner told the workers who originally filed the suit that he would settle their cases (for much less than they were owed or would have been entitled to in court) and give them their jobs back. He threatened at least one of the workers, Manuel,* that if he spoke to his attorneys about the case, he would not pay him or return him to work, and that he would endure other serious consequences. The owner demanded that Manuel change his cell phone number and address so that his attorneys could not contact him.

All of the original plaintiffs gave in to the owner’s demands, and Manuel ceased contact with his lawyers and changed his cell phone number. Although EJC obtained a protective order preventing the owner from discussing the lawsuit directly with workers, this did not stop him from threatening them. Unfortunately, because of threats made by the employer, Manuel did not attend a court hearing; as a result, the Court decided to drop his claims because he had not pressed them.

Several months later, Manuel contacted his EJC attorneys and told them the whole story. EJC and James & Hoffman filed a motion to re-open the case and Manuel was able to inform the judge about what had happened to him. As a result of Manuel’s testimony at that hearing, the Court referred the case to the U.S. attorney’s office for criminal prosecution, and the U.S. attorney charged the owner with criminal contempt. Ultimately, the owner pled guilty to the charge. Later this year, the wage case settled (again) and Manuel finally received the full amount of damages to which he was legally entitled.

Due to Manuel’s courage, with the support of his attorneys (Sally Abrahamson and Justin Zelikovitz from EJC and Darin Dalmat and Danny Rosenthal from James & Hoffman), a clear message was sent to this employer and hopefully others: If you intimidate and threaten a worker to prevent him from exercising his legal rights, you will be punished.

Follow ongoing attempts by Georgetown students to bring Epicurean to justice: http://www.thehoya.com/activists-march-on-epicurean-1.3117106 – .UoJOfJTk_Ks.

* Name changed to protect the identity of the client.