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Immigration Law

NY Restaurant Chain Denied Immigration Docs In FLSA Suit - Law360

Law360, July 8, 2015 - "Alice's Tea Cup LLC, a Manhattan cafe chain that has been sued by workers claiming they were stiffed on overtime pay, cannot obtain discovery of information related to the workers' immigration status or tax returns as part of its effort to defend against the wage claims, a New York magistrate judge has ruled.

U.S. Magistrate Judge James C. Francis on Monday granted the workers' bid for a protective order from Alice's Tea Cup's discovery requests, saying they don't have to turn over evidence related to their immigration status or financial records because it is not relevant to their Fair Labor Standards Act and New York labor law claims.

“In the instant case, because 'discovery into a FLSA plaintiff’s immigration status is irrelevant and impermissible,' the plaintiffs’ application for a protective order is granted, and the defendants are precluded from seeking evidence regarding the plaintiffs’ immigration status and work authorization,” Judge Francis said.

In their complaint, which was filed in November, the current and former employees alleged that during the course of their employment, they were not paid overtime compensation and a “spread of hours” premium for days when they worked more than 10 hours.

Alice's Tea Cup, which has three locations in New York City, and its owners Zhariff Melgoza and Haley Fox filed discovery requests in May demanding that the workers produce documents verifying their immigration status, work authorization documents, federal and state income tax returns, and documents “sufficient to identify the current employer” for each plaintiff.

The defendants also requested certain admissions as to the plaintiffs’ immigration status and authorization to work, including that they provided Alice's Tea Cup with false Social Security numbers, according to court documents.

The workers responded several days later by seeking a protective order. But Alice's Tea Cup opposed the request, arguing the information it sought is relevant to the workers’ ability to obtain damages under the FLSA and New York labor law as well as to their credibility. The information would also explain the absence of some payroll records, the employer argued.

But in siding with the workers, Judge Francis said that in the context of wage and hour violations under both the FLSA and NYLL, immigration status has generally been protected from discovery and Alice's Tea Cup cited several inapplicable cases to attempt to show the evidence was relevant to the current case.

Further, the judge concluded that even if evidence regarding immigration status were relevant, the risk of injury to the plaintiffs if such information were disclosed outweighs the need for its disclosure “because of the danger of intimidation and of undermining the purposes of the FLSA.”

Moreover, the judge concluded that the workers' immigration status was not pertinent to the absence of payroll records.

The judge also nixed Alice's Tea Cup's request for the workers' tax returns, saying the defendants “failed to demonstrate either relevance or a compelling need” for the records.

“Indeed, the plaintiffs’ tax returns would only include total income and not details that would be relevant in an FLSA and NYLL suit, such as weekly wages and specific hours worked,” the judge said. “Rather, tax information from plaintiffs would serve no obvious purpose other than intimidation.”

Lastly, the judge said that information about the workers' current employers was also not relevant to the proceedings, nor is an admission that the workers are being paid in cash, rejecting Alice's Tea Cup's argument that the workers are content to be paid that way because of their undocumented status to avoid scrutiny. 

“Whatever the plaintiffs’ arrangement with their current employers might be, it says nothing about the hours that the plaintiffs worked for the defendants or what they were paid,” Judge Francis said.

As part of the ruling, the judge also allowed the plaintiffs to amend their complaint in part to remove class and collective action allegations.

Plaintiffs' counsel Peter Cooper of Cilenti & Cooper PLLC told Law360 Wednesday that Judge Francis “reached the correct decision under the law in New York.”
“We are obviously pleased with it and proud to represent the 11 employees of Alice’s Tea Cup in their claim of unpaid overtime,” Cooper said.

Attorneys for Alice's Tea Cup LLC were not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

The plaintiffs are represented by Peter Hans Cooper of Cilenti & Cooper PLLC.

The defendants are represented by Howard A. Matalon of OlenderFeldman LLP.

The case is David Rosas et al. v. Alice's Tea Cup at al., case number 1:14-cv-08788, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York."