Calling it a victory, the Labor Department announced that a federal judge in Tulsa has ruled that El Tequila LLC and its owner must pay $2.1 million in back wages and liquidated damages to more than 300 workers. The judge overruled a jury verdict to find that the operator of four Mexican restaurants in the Tulsa area willfully violated the FLSA’s minimum wage, overtime, and recordkeeping provisions. Question of willfulness went to jury. Prior to trial, the court found on summary judgment that El Tequila and its owner had violated the FLSA’s minimum wage, overtime, and recordkeeping provisions. The court also granted summary judgment on the DOL’s calculation of damages and the application of liquidated damages, and it enjoined the employer from committing future FLSA violations. The only question left for the jury was whether the defendants’ FLSA violations during the year at issue were willful. Jury got it wrong. After a five-day trial, the jury found that the violations were not willful. The Labor Department disagreed and filed a motion to set aside the verdict, arguing that the evidence at trial proved as a matter of law that the violations were willful. The judge sided with the DOL, which meant that because the violations were willful, the statute of limitations to recover unpaid minimum wages, overtime compensation, and liquidated damages could be extended from two to three years. That meant more for the workers who had been cheated of their lawful wages. In his order, the judge determined that the jury’s verdict clearing the employer of willful violations was legally unsupported. At trial, the DOL had shown undeniably that El Tequila and its owner underpaid employees willfully; lied to a federal investigator and instructed employees to do the same; falsified payroll and time records; accepted kickbacks; and used an accountant to cover up their wage theft violations. “This employer went to great lengths to avoid paying his employees wages they rightfully earned,” remarked Wage and Hour Regional Administrator Betty Campbell. The DOL filed its lawsuit in the Northern District of Oklahoma; the case is No. 12-CV-588-JED-PJC.
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