EJC attorneys, Aaron Johnson and Chris Willett, this week presented appellate arguments before the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, defending the traditional wage rights of low-wage workers against the increasing efforts among many employers to roll back their traditional accountability for substandard wages in the business establishments they supervise.
The case involves a restaurant cook who worked in a restaurant that was part of the Craig O’s pizza chain in Central Texas. For years the cook routinely worked over 70 hours a week, seven days a week, without ever receiving the overtime pay required by federal law.
In the summer of 2013, the cook, represented by EJC attorneys Johnson and Willett, won a jury trial in federal district court in Austin. The jury, after listening to three days of evidence, rendered a verdict in favor of the cook and he was awarded $69,000 in unpaid wages and damages. The jury also decided that the individual owner of the pizza chain should be held responsible for paying the unpaid wages – and not just the operator of the local restaurant – based on evidence that the chain owner had been actively involved in running the local restaurant and setting work schedules and had known about and taken advantage of the cook’s illegal wage rate.
This decision by the jury holding the chain owner responsible was critical in this case, because the local restaurant owner had long since gone bankrupt. Moreover, the federal law for more than seven decades has placed responsibility for wages on all the individuals and business that supervise employees’ working conditions both to ensure compliance with the wage laws and to prevent adroit schemes under which the real employer can evade responsibility by hiding behind an insubstantial, nominal employer.
That is now the key issue before the U.S. Court of Appeals. The EJC attorneys have argued that the court should uphold the traditional broad definition of who is an employer in order to ensure full compliance with employee wage rights. The attorneys for the defendant pizza chain owner have argued that the court should apply the law narrowly – minimizing employers’ responsibility and rolling back employee’s rights under the federal wage laws. The U.S. Department of Labor filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting the EJC’s and the cook’s position. The National Restaurant Association filed a brief on the side of the employer.