Lucas v. Jerusalem Cafe, LLC

Decision Date06 September 2013
Docket NumberNo. 12–2170.,12–2170.
Citation721 F.3d 927
PartiesElmer LUCAS; Margarito Rodas; Gonzalo Leal; Feliciano Macario; Bernabe Villavicencio; Esvin Lucas, Plaintiffs–Appellees v. JERUSALEM CAFE, LLC; Farid Azzeh, Individually; Adel Alazzeh, Individually and as successor in interest to Jerusalem Cafe LLC, doing business as Jerusalem Cafe, LLC, Defendants–Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Jonathan Sternberg, argued, Kansas City, MO, for appellant.

Heather J. Schlozman, argued, Mark Van Buren Dugan, on the brief, Overland Park, KS, for appellees.

Laura M. Moskowitz, argued, Paul L. Frieden, on the brief, Washington, DC, for amicus in support of appellees.

Before RILEY, Chief Judge, LOKEN and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges.

RILEY, Chief Judge.

For varying periods between June 2007 and March 2010, Elmer Lucas and five other aliens (collectively, workers), without employment authorization, toiled in the Jerusalem Cafe (Cafe), some for less than minimum wage and all without receiving overtime wages. The workers sued the Cafe, and its then-owner Farid Azzeh and manager Adel Alazzeh (collectively, employers), for willfully violating the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq. After a jury decided in the workers' favor, the district court 1 awarded the workers minimum and overtime wages, statutory liquidated damages, and legal fees. The district court denied the employers' motion for judgment as a matter of law, rejecting the argument that the workers, as aliens without work authorization, lacked standing to sue. The employers appeal, contending the FLSA does not apply to employers who illegally hire unauthorized aliens. We disagree. The FLSA does not allow employers to exploit any employee's immigration status or to profit from hiring unauthorized aliens in violation of federal law. Exercising our jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm.

I. BACKGROUNDA. Facts2

This case concerns the employers' failure to pay minimum and overtime wages between June 2007 and March 2010. During this period, Azzeh, the owner of the Jerusalem Cafe, and Alazzeh, who held a managerial role in the Cafe, paid the workers, in cash, at fixed weekly rates which did not vary based on overtime hours worked.

1. Workers

The six individuals who brought this suit are (1) Feliciano Macario, (2) Gonzalo Leal, (3) Elmer Lucas (Lucas), (4) Esvin Lucas (Esvin), (5) Margarito Rodas, and (6) Bernabe Villavicencio. Table 1 lists the jury's findings as to the workers' weekly hours, wages, and effective hourly wages during the period at issue in this case.

Table 1
+--------------------------------------------------------------------+
                ¦                                        ¦Weekly¦Weekly¦Effective    ¦
                +----------------------------------------+------+------+-------------¦
                ¦                                        ¦Hours ¦Wage  ¦Hourly Wage  ¦
                +--------------------------------------------------------------------+
                
+------------------------------------------------------+
                ¦Feliciano Macario               ¦    ¦     ¦          ¦
                +--------------------------------+----+-----+----------¦
                ¦January 2008 to January 2010    ¦77  ¦$300 ¦$ 3.90    ¦
                +--------------------------------+----+-----+----------¦
                ¦Gonzalo Leal                    ¦    ¦     ¦          ¦
                +--------------------------------+----+-----+----------¦
                ¦June 2007 to September 2008     ¦77  ¦$420 ¦$ 5.45    ¦
                +--------------------------------+----+-----+----------¦
                ¦September 2008 to March 2010    ¦77  ¦$500 ¦$ 6.49    ¦
                +--------------------------------+----+-----+----------¦
                ¦Elmer Lucas                     ¦    ¦     ¦          ¦
                +--------------------------------+----+-----+----------¦
                ¦June 2007 to March 2008         ¦77  ¦$360 ¦$ 4.68    ¦
                +--------------------------------+----+-----+----------¦
                ¦March 2008 to September 2008    ¦77  ¦$480 ¦$ 6.23    ¦
                +--------------------------------+----+-----+----------¦
                ¦September 2008 to September 2009¦77  ¦$640 ¦$ 8.31    ¦
                +--------------------------------+----+-----+----------¦
                ¦September 2009 to March 2010    ¦77  ¦$560 ¦$ 7.27    ¦
                +--------------------------------+----+-----+----------¦
                ¦Esvin Lucas                     ¦    ¦     ¦          ¦
                +--------------------------------+----+-----+----------¦
                ¦June 2007 to January 2010       ¦66  ¦$550 ¦$ 8.33    ¦
                +--------------------------------+----+-----+----------¦
                ¦January 2010 to March 2010      ¦60  ¦$500 ¦$ 8.33    ¦
                +--------------------------------+----+-----+----------¦
                ¦Margarito Rodas                 ¦    ¦     ¦          ¦
                +--------------------------------+----+-----+----------¦
                ¦June 2007 to September 2008     ¦77  ¦$420 ¦$ 5.45    ¦
                +--------------------------------+----+-----+----------¦
                ¦September 2008 to March 2010    ¦77  ¦$500 ¦$ 6.49    ¦
                +--------------------------------+----+-----+----------¦
                ¦Bernabe Villavicencio           ¦    ¦     ¦          ¦
                +--------------------------------+----+-----+----------¦
                ¦June 2007 to July 2009          ¦77  ¦$800 ¦$10.39    ¦
                +--------------------------------+----+-----+----------¦
                ¦July 2009 to March 2010         ¦77  ¦$700 ¦$ 9.09    ¦
                +------------------------------------------------------+
                

On January 23, 2010, Macario called the police after Azzeh's and Alazzeh's nephew allegedly struck him. Fearing the police would discover Azzeh employed illegal aliens, Azzeh offered Macario $500 to drop the charges and return to work. Macario refused. The employers terminated Macario in January 2010, and also terminated the other workers' employment in March 2010 after the other workers refused to falsify an employment application to make it appear they had not been working for the Cafe before March 2010.

2. Employers' Account

In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Azzeh claimed photos and videos of the workers performing tasks in the restaurant showed the workers “volunteering” and “posing for picture[s].” Azzeh also claimed the workers' food handler cards, issued by the Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department, see Kan. City, Mo., Food Code § 8–304.11(I)(2), and listing the Cafe as the workplace, were obtained in order to allow the workers to “volunteer” in the restaurant. Having observed the trial, the district court called the employers' account a “fantastic story.”

B. Procedural History

The workers filed an amended complaint in the Western District of Missouri on July 30, 2010, alleging the employers willfully failed to pay minimum and overtime wages in violation of the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. §§ 206(a), 207(a). On September 27, 2011, the district court granted the workers' motion in limine to preclude mention at trial of the workers' immigration status. The district court found the workers' immigration status “irrelevant” because they were seeking FLSA wages for previous work—not prospective relief, which would be unlawful under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), 8 U.S.C. § 1324a.

1. Trial

The district court held a four-day jury trial in November 2011. On the third day, Rodas testified during cross-examination that Azzeh “knew that he would get in trouble if he would have hired illegals like us. (Emphasis added.) After discussion with counsel, the district court instructed the jury to “disregard the last statement made by this witness in its entirety.” Later on the third day, during his cross-examination, Azzeh wished to answer the question why he kept no record of the workers' payments by testifying that he could not “I–9” 3 the workers. After discussionamong counsel, the parties agreed to dissolve the order in limine, and the district court instructed the jury that the order had changed “in order to give ... a clearer picture of what[ ] transpired here.” Azzeh then testified he had never employed the workers—with the exception of Macario, whom he admitted hiring—because he “never hired illegals.”

The jury found in the workers' favor. In accordance with the jury's verdict, the district court awarded $141,864.04 in actual damages for unpaid FLSA wages, $141,864.04 in liquidated damages based on the jury's finding that the employers willfully failed to pay FLSA wages, $150,627.00 in legal fees, and $6,561.63 in expenses.

2. Post–Trial Motions

The employers moved for judgment as a matter of law or a new trial, arguing the workers “as undocumented aliens” were “prohibited by law from receiving any wages ... [and] lacked standing to sue for backpay under the [FLSA].” The district court rejected both arguments. First, denying the employers' motion for judgment as a matter of law, the district court found the standing argument was “a belated attempt by [the employers] to bring an affirmative defense” that the workers were not employed within the meaning of the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 203(e)(1). The employers waived that IRCA argument by failing to raise it until after trial, concluded the district court. On the question of Article III standing, which cannot be waived, the district court found the workers had standing to sue the employers because they (1) “suffered an injury in fact,” (2) “this injury was the direct result of [the employers'] failure to pay the lawful wage,” and (3) “the court's judgment will redress the [workers'] injuries.”

Second, the district court denied the employers' motion for a new trial, finding no error in the order precluding any reference to the workers' immigration status. The district court observed that “virtually all of the courts that have considered th[e] issue” concluded immigration status “was irrelevant ... because illegal aliens are not precluded from recovering unpaid wages under the FLSA.” Even if its order were erroneous, the district court found the error would be harmless because the employers ultimately were able to discuss the workers' immigration status in the employer's case and argue they would not have hired unauthorized workers. Rejecting the employers' contention that...

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