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D.D.C.: High-Profile D.C. Chef Is An “Employer” And Personally Liable For Wage And Hour Violations At His Restaurant
Ventura v. Bebo Foods, Inc.
This case, concerning alleged Wage and Hour violations under the FLSA and the DCWPCL was before the Court on two issues: (1) whether defendant Roberto Donna (“Donna”) was personally liable for minimum wage and overtime violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and the D.C. Wage Payment and Collection Law (“DCWPCL”); and (2) damages, if any, as to the corporate defendants. The Court held that Donna was personally liable for such violations, but deferred on the remaining issues.
Discussing the personal liability of Donna, the Court reasoned:
“The Court concludes that Donna is personally liable under the FLSA and DCWPCL for minimum wage, overtime, and equal pay violations because he is an employer under both the FLSA and DCWPCL. To be liable for violations of the FLSA, the defendant must be an “employer.” 29 U.S.C. §§ 206–207 (2010). The FLSA defines “employer” to include “any person acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee.” 29 U.S .C. § 203(d). This definition is broadly construed to serve the remedial purposes of the act. Morrison v. Int’l Programs Consortium, Inc., 253 F.3d 5, 10 (D.C.Cir.2001). Thus, courts look to the “economic reality” rather than technical common law concepts of agency to determine whether a defendant is an employer. Id. at 11; see also Donovan v. Agnew, 712 F.2d 1509, 1510 (1st Cir.1983).
In applying the economic reality test, the Court considers “the totality of the circumstances of the relationship between the plaintiff/employee and defendant/employer to determine whether the putative employer has the power to hire and fire, supervise and control work schedules or conditions of employment, determine rate and method of pay, and maintain employment records.” Del Villar v. Flynn Architectural Finishes, 664 F.Supp.2d 94, 96 (D.D.C.2009) (citing Morrison, 253 F.3d at 11). This test may show that more than one “employer” is liable for violations of the FLSA. Dep’t of Labor v. Cole Enterprises, Inc., 62 F.3d 775, 778 (6th Cir.1995). As a result, a corporate officer may qualify as an employer along with the corporation under the FLSA if the officer has operational control of a corporation’s covered enterprise. Agnew, 712 F.2d at 1511. To determine whether a corporate officer has operational control, the Court looks at the factors above plus the ownership interest of the corporate officer. See Cole Enterprises, 62 F.3d at 778 (explaining that an individual has operation control if he or she is a high level executive, has a significant ownership interest, controls significant functions of the business, and determines salaries and makes hiring decisions).
Here, plaintiffs have demonstrated that Donna is an “employer” under the FLSA because he has operational control over the corporate defendants. First, Donna is an executive with significant ownership interest in the corporate defendants. He is the president and sole owner of Bebo Foods and was the president and sole owner of RD Trattoria. (Donna Dep. at 18:3-20:11, 29:16-17.) He also owned eighty percent of Galileo. (Id. at 33:7-8.) Second, Donna had the power to hire and fire, control work schedules and supervise employees, determine pay rates, and maintain employment records. For example, Donna transferred employees from Galileo to Bebo Trattoria when Galileo closed in 2006, and he took part in the hiring of other employees. (Pls.’ Opp’n  to Defs.’ Mot. to Dismiss Ex. 2; Donna Dep. 54:5-7.) Moreover, at the evidentiary hearing, several plaintiffs testified that Donna supervised plaintiffs on the floor of his restaurants. He also approved wage payments to plaintiffs, including the issuance of post-dated or unsigned checks, the payment of partial wages, and the withholding of any payment. (See, e.g., Ventura Aff. ¶¶ 7-9; Vuckovic Aff ¶ 4.) Furthermore, when plaintiffs complained about defendants’ payment practices, he informed them that he withheld wage payments-either in full or in part-from plaintiffs in order to pay Bebo Trattoria’s past debts for which he was behind in payment. (See, e.g., Ventura Aff. ¶ 7; Romic Aff. ¶ 10.) Indeed, plaintiffs’ evidence demonstrates that Donna exerted operational control over the corporate defendants.
Accordingly, Donna is an “employer” under the FLSA and is personally liable for the corporate defendants’ wage, overtime, and equal pay violations. Similarly, because the DCWPCL is construed consistently with the FLSA, Donna is an “employer” under the DCWPCL and is liable for the corporate defendants’ violations of its wage and overtime provisions.”
Due to the high volume of claims against restaurants and their chef-owners recently, this case will no-doubt will have wide-reaching reverberations.
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