JUDGE RULES AGAINST SANTA FE BUSINESS ACCUSED OF VIOLATING CITY'S MINIMUM WAGE ORDINANCE AND STATE OVERTIME RULES; DISMISSES COUNTERCLAIM AGAINST WORKERS & ALLOWS CASE AGAINST MANAGER TO MOVE FORWARD
NOVEMBER 2, 2017
Santa Fe, NM-Late Wednesday afternoon, N.M. District Court Judge David K. Thomson dismissed a counterclaim filed by Horseman's Haven Café against three workers who are currently suing the restaurant for not paying the City of Santa Fe's minimum wage and overtime pay required by state law. The counterclaim, rejected by the judge, alleged that the workers maliciously abused the legal process available to them when they submitted wage theft complaints to the City of Santa Fe in 2015.
The judge also denied a motion by the defendants to remove Kim Gonzales, a manager and co-owner of Horseman's Haven Café, from the lawsuit at this early stage in the case as an individual who could be held personally liable for violating the wage and hour laws.
"Judge Thomson ruled that counterclaims brought by an employer against employees for having petitioned the city government to protect them from being denied their minimum wages and appropriate time and a half were illegal and ordered them dismissed," said Daniel Yohalem, one of the attorneys representing Guadalupe Valtierrez Ceniceros, Carlos Vasquez and Jose Valtierrez Villa in the wage case against the restaurant. "This is a strong victory for workers in Santa Fe and for the constitutional right of residents to petition their government for help without fearing retaliation by way of a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation suit."
"The judge's decisions are a not only a breakthrough for workers who are being bullied by employers, but they also send a clear message to employers who want to steal wages and then hide behind their limited liability corporations," said Gabriela Ibañez Guzmán, staff attorney with Somos Un Pueblo Unido's Worker Center also representing the workers. "In recent years we had seen a pattern by employers filing these types of counterclaims against workers. Employers are now on notice that this cannot become part of their practice to defend against wage complaints."
The workers' lawsuit, originally filed in First Judicial District Court in June 2017, alleges that a number of kitchen workers were not paid the City's "living wage" and overtime, in some instances for several years. The workers submitted wage complaints in 2015 with the City Attorney's office, and after undertaking an initial investigation, the City instructed the workers to file their cases in state district court. Upon submitting the suit in court, the restaurant responded by filing a counterclaim against the workers for submitting wage complaints with the City of Santa Fe, asserting those complaints were an abuse of process and frivolous.
Guadalupe Valtierrez Ceniceros, member of the Somos' Worker Center said: "I filed a wage complaint with the City of Santa Fe first because I thought it would be the fastest and easiest way to resolve my wage issue with my former employer, but that was not the case. I never thought filing a wage complaint with the City would be used against me once we were required to file our case in court. We are glad the judge is allowing our case to move forward. For the sake of our families, we hope to recover our stolen wages soon."
Rayos Burciaga, a founding member of the Somos' worker center, said on Thursday: "The Santa Fe City Council passed the living wage ordinance in 2003 to ensure that all workers have a higher standard of living. Fourteen years later, there are still businesses in the city that not only refuse to abide by the law and pay their workers an honest wage, but are seeking to intimidate workers who assert their rights. It's clear that we need to develop stronger and more efficient enforcement measures at the city."
To view a copy of the initial lawsuit click here.
Somos Un Pueblo Unido is a statewide civil and worker's rights organization. In 2012, Somos founded New Mexico's only worker center, the United Worker Center of New Mexico, to organize and provide support to non-union, low-wage workers.