A federal judge in Tulsa overturned a jury verdict yesterday ruling that El Tequila LLC and owner Carlos Aguirre willfully violated the minimum wage, overtime, and recordkeeping provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. El Tequila and Aguirre must pay $2.1 million in back wages and liquidated damages to over 300 vulnerable workers.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s case was so strong that before the trial the court, ruling on summary judgment, found that El Tequila and Aguirre had violated the FLSA’s minimum wage, overtime, and recordkeeping provisions. The court also granted the Secretary’s summary judgment motion with respect to his calculation of damages and the application of liquidated damages, and enjoined the employer from committing future violations of the FLSA.
In the end, only one question was left for the jury: whether the defendants’ violations of the FLSA between Oct. 22, 2009 and Oct. 21, 2010, were willful. After a five-day trial, a jury found that El Tequila and Aguirre’s violations were not willful. The department filed a motion to set aside the verdict, arguing that the evidence presented at trial proved as a matter of law that El Tequila and Aguirre’s violations were willful. The judge agreed with the department. A ruling that the violations were willful means the statute of limitations to recover unpaid minimum wages, overtime compensation, and liquidated damages can be extended from two to three years.
“This ruling is a victory for the department, but more importantly for these hard-working and vulnerable employees. The employer willfully violated the FLSA and the judge’s decision means these workers will be able to collect more of the wages they rightfully earned,” said Betty Campbell, regional administrator for the Wage and Hour Division in the Southwest.
“This employer went to great lengths to avoid paying his employees wages they rightfully earned. Employers who violate the law should know: the department has been enforcing the Fair Labor Standards Act for more than 75 years and will continue to use all tools at its disposal, including the assessment of liquidated damages and, when necessary, litigation, to ensure that workers are properly paid.”
In his Dec. 22, 2015 order, U.S. District Judge John Dowdell of the Northern District of Oklahoma determined that the jury’s verdict, clearing the employer of willful violations, was not supported legally. At trial, the department showed undeniably that El Tequila and Aguirre underpaid employees willfully; lied to a federal investigator, instructed employees to do the same; falsified payroll and time records; accepted kickbacks; and used an accountant to cover up their wage theft violations.
El Tequila operates four Mexican restaurants in the Tulsa area.
The FLSA requires that covered, non-exempt employees be paid at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour for all hours worked, plus time and one-half their regular rates, including commissions, bonuses and incentive pay for hours worked beyond 40 per week. Employers also must maintain accurate time and payroll records, and are prohibited from retaliating against workers who exercise their rights under the law. For more information about the FLSA, call the Wage and Hour Division’s toll-free helpline at 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243). Information also is available at http://www.dol.gov/whd/.
Docket Number: 12-CV-588-JED-PJC