By Yanin Senachai, Skadden Fellow, Impact Litigation
On September 3, 2014, two restaurant workers asked a court to strike a lawsuit filed against them by their former employer, popular Los Angeles restaurant Izakaya Fu-ga (Fu-ga), after the workers collectively organized to end wage theft at the restaurant and filed wage claims with the state Labor Commissioner. On behalf of workers Nilton Vanegas and Lynn See, Advancing Justice-LA filed a motion asking the court to strike down Fu-ga’s lawsuit based on California’s anti-SLAPP (“strategic lawsuits against public participation”) law, which prohibits lawsuits that target people for exercising their rights, as the workers did here by organizing and filing state claims. Unfortunately, workers who assert their rights often find themselves targeted with such lawsuits.
In late 2013, Nilton Vanegas and Lynn See, trusted long-time Fu-ga employees, began organizing a group of approximately 20 workers seeking to end illegal wage and hour practices at the restaurant. These practices included withholding workers’ tips, falsifying time records by forcing workers to work “off-the-clock,” failing to provide meal and rest breaks, and retaliating against workers who asserted their workplace rights. Fu-ga management refused to engage with the workers informally to address their concerns over labor violations, and in March 2014, thirteen workers (including Mr. Vanegas and Ms. See) filed wage claims with the Labor Commissioner. At the end of that month, Fu-ga terminated Mr. Vanegas without notice and soon after sued him. On July 14, 2014, the same day Ms. See participated in a settlement conference at the Labor Commissioner’s office, Fu-ga added her to the lawsuit.
Fu-ga’s lawsuit claims that by exercising their workplace rights, Mr. Vanegas and Ms. See “defamed” Fu-ga. It also claims that by bringing wage and retaliation claims with the Labor Commissioner, they “conspired” with other employees to “extort” the restaurant. The lawsuit also alleged that Mr. Vanegas and Ms. See misappropriated tips and falsified time records—the very same claims all thirteen workers made against Fu-ga before the Labor Commissioner.
“Lawsuits like this one targeting workers’ right to freely organize and pursue legal claims for fair wages and improved working conditions are the very reason the anti-SLAPP statute was enacted. Employers should not be allowed to co-opt the legal system as a means to intimidate workers from asserting their rights. We commend our clients in this case for holding their ground, and fighting back against intimidation and retaliation,” said Laboni Hoq, Litigation Director at Advancing Justice – LA.
Advancing Justice - LA and ROC-LA demonstrate in front of Fu-ga in Downtown LA
This lawsuit is one of many efforts Fu-ga has engaged in to chill the workers’ rights, and intimidate them from pursuing their claims. Last month, Advancing Justice – LA successfully defended workers against Fu-ga manager Mamoru Tokuda’s attempt to obtain civil harassment restraining orders against three current and former employees and two community advocates from the non-profit Restaurant Opportunities Center – Los Angeles (ROC-LA), whose mission is to educate and advocate for restaurant workers experiencing workplace labor violations. The five restraining order petitions alleged that employees and ROC-LA “harassed” Mr. Tokuda when they met with him to ask that he stop retaliating against a limited English speaking worker, who had a pending wage claim, by demanding the worker provide more work authorization documents than the law permits. A state court judge, the Honorable Carol B. Goodson, denied all five of Mr. Tokuda’s restraining order petitions.
“After the judge quickly denied the restraining orders, I knew that Fu-ga was scrambling to use any scheme to derail our fair-wage movement,” said Jon Neuman, one of the workers against whom Fu-ga management has taken action. “Thanks to the advice and support from the staff at ROC-LA and our legal team at Advancing Justice - LA, we will overcome and prevail over anything that Fu-ga cooks up.”
Advancing Justice – LA’s representation of former and current Fu-ga workers in their Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) wage and retaliation claims is part of Advancing Justice – LA’s workers’ rights initiative. In addition to representing Fu-ga workers, Advancing Justice-LA also holds worker’s rights clinics in partnership with community-based organizations such as the Filipino Migrant Center (FMC). The FMC worker’s rights clinic is held in Long Beach, and includes in-language intake, and free legal advice and counsel regarding workplace labor violations. To find out more about the worker’s rights clinic or workers’ rights issues more generally, call 1-888-349-9695.