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Greenwich Stands Its Ground

Governments of, by and for the people – run by human beings – are inevitably prone to mistakes. The test of good government is how those running an administration deal with a mishap, or worse yet, illegal actions.

What if that unsavory practice has been denying cafeteria workers in a public school system the federally mandated 15-minute break, for, say, 17 years? What is the best response to that unjust policy perpetuated by a municipal corporation?

Fourteen current and former cafeteria employees working in Greenwich, CT’s public school system discovered the city skirted the law by deducting 15 minutes from their paychecks.

The workers found an attorney, then filed a claim with the Connecticut Department of Labor. The DOL found in their favor, and forced the City of Greenwich to pay them two years of back wages, with interest.

Yet since Greenwich abused workers like this for a long time, the town still comes out ahead after the paying the DOL back wages plus interest, said plaintiffs’ attorney Anthony LaBella of Ury and Moskow in Fairfield.

The Plaintiffs want to get their full back pay, though, plus attorneys fees, and if the town was knowingly breaking the law, the court can award double damages. It is not a stretch under state law (C.G.S. §31-72) for the 14 cafeteria workers claim the full amount of unpaid wages.

When Greenwich sent the cafeteria workers their back pay courtesy of the DOL, LaBella said the town didn’t send a release. So the plaintiffs sent the town a letter reserving their rights.

“We made every effort to try to resolve this before putting it into suit,” LaBella said. “We waited, sent letters, and they were just like, zero, nothing. That is why this is going forward.”

The case is Casuto v. Greenwich, docket number FST-CV13-6018043-S, in Stamford state court. It is shamefully predictable that Greenwich, one of the richest cities in the world, responded by fighting tooth and nail.

How else do the wealth, elitist municipalities deal with working class people? Tell them to leave by sundown or else. Or intimidate them into being afraid to fight for their rights.

“More than 14 people work in cafeteria system in Greenwich public school system,” he said. But, many didn’t sign on to be plaintiffs out of fear, he said. Only those who fight can win. This is not a class action.

Cafeteria workers are probably the lowest paid people working for the town of Greenwich. Yet to defeat their claims, Greenwich seems to have spent more in attorneys’ fees than what the claims are worth.

Attorney Labella said he filed an offer of compromise for about $40,000.00. Let’s assume Greenwich’s attorneys are not milking the public for attorneys’ fees, but act on orders from their client. Why is Greenwich defending its wage and hour violations so vigorously?

We won’t know, because First Selectman Peter Tesei did not return a call for comment. It would have been a stock we-can’t-comment-on-pending-litigation reply anyway. But a potential answer might be: Greenwich has to defend this because rolling over could open the floodgates to other litigation. Hogwash. Being a fair, just, non-discriminatory employer discourages frivolous claims, and makes vexatious suits so much easier to defend.

Thus Greenwich owes an explanation why it throws good money after bad defending an illegal practice. It’s an obnoxious example of how far monied interests twist the rule of law. The actions of a local government voted in by the richest one percent at home should not surprise us.

Greenwich has walked the plaintiffs through motion practice. First, the town filed a motion to strike the complaint and then it filed a motion to dismiss.

Parties granted the motion to strike, claiming that the plaintiffs failed to allege bad faith, by consent in October. This gave the plaintiffs an opportunity to replead, LaBella said.

“If you want us to plead bad faith, here it comes,” LaBella said. “It had been such a long standing practice. A motion to strike helps you more than it hurts you. Our substituted complaint goes through the ways in which town acted in bad faith.”

The Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint says “the Defendant willfully failed to remit wages.” Then, it claims Greenwich acted in bad faith, among other reasons, because “It failed and/or refused to respond to various notices of this violation from employees, by way of complaints of a verbal nature.” People complained. Greenwich ignored it.

LaBella figures Greenwich has spent at least $20,000 on legal fees for outside counsel. I bet it will spend at least that much defending conduct the DOL  found “to be wrongful, unjustified and in violation of state and federal law.”  Judge Trial Referee Taggart D. Adams cited this in his opinion denying Greenwich’s motion to dismiss on December 20, 2013.

Adams rejected Greenwich’s argument the back wage claims were moot. The court didn’t listen when Greenwich, in effect, said – hey, we paid these low wage rabblerousers once, they have no right to a second bite at the apple. Wise counsel for Greenwich would have settled before a marshal had to serve the town.

Looking at the cafeteria workers’ allegations in the light most favorable to them, the court ruled C.G.S. §31-72 gives the workers the right to seek this relief for unpaid wages. The court noted the plaintiffs “are not seeking the whole apple again, just that part which they have not receive but to which they are potentially entitled under the statute.”

Greenwich does not want to make these workers whole, and the town will spend every last taxpayer dime protecting its right to break the law. LaBella reported the Town just sent 30 pages of discovery to each of the 14 plaintiffs.

Figure $300.00 an hour in attorneys fees, and at least an hour to read and process each of those 14 discovery requests, that’s $4,200 right there.

Christine Casuto, the lead plaintiff, only pled to having $2,012.55 in unpaid wages and $200.28 in unpaid interest as damages. Yet the legal bills will mount as Greenwich stands its ground. Maybe the Town wants to make it too expensive for plaintiffs’ counsel to bring this kind of action in the future. This preserves the Town’s ability to abuse labor with impunity.

To add insult to injury, LaBella said the town now forces the workers to take a 30-minute break which the Town doesn’t have to pay for.

It’s rich people tax money fighting for the government’s right to keep poor people poor. Just when I get some confidence in America’s ability to change calcified policies, like the Colorado and Washington voters who changed American drug policy, I hear about this.

Elected officials and school board officials should have a lot to explain when they direct civic institutions to adopt regressive corporate capitalist policies. This is something you expect to hear from a Wal-Mart or a McDonald’s.

The administrators of a democratic republic, in theory, should be the ideal employers, not doubling down on lawlessness. This behavior is anathema to what municipal government should stand for – local justice and fairness.

Complaints about public servants earning gold plated benefits produce this logical outcome of a body politic mimicing private-sector exploitation. I understand the municipal budget crisis, but we cannot excuse community leaders who spend public resources to perpetuate economic apartheid.

Greenwich has essentially brought Sheriff Bull Connor into the courtroom to point a legal fire hose at the 14 cafeteria workers brave enough to challenge this policy of financial segregation.

As history’s slow march dooms the Gold Coast’s many injustices to its dustbin, the architects and defenders of this policy should resign in shame, since a civilized America must not tolerate brazen lawlessness from public employers.

 

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