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Personal Liability for Unpaid Wages Caused by Misclassification of Independent Contractors

FAQ: I own a small business and recently discovered that I had misclassified some of my workers and was not paying them accurate minimum wages and overtime pay. Can I be held personally liable to these employees for their unpaid compensation?

above-the-bar-logo-no12You ask an excellent question that our Wage and Hour Attorneys are often asked by the heads of many of our family owned businesses as well as small to large sized companies. The Judge in the New York Southern District Court recently ruled in Torres et al. v. Gristedes Operating Corp., et al., that Mr. Catsimatidis, the president and CEO, of a grocery chain was personally and individually liable to his employees for unpaid wages. Depending on your factual circumstances, you are at risk of being personally liable for your employees’ unpaid compensation. Our Wage and Hour Attorneys have helped many companies properly classify their employees to avoid any potential personal liability.

The class action lawsuit alleged that Mr. Catsimatidis, Gristede’s owner, misclassified hundreds of hourly workers as managers to avoid paying them overtime. The lawsuit originally began in 2004 and was settled in June of 2009 resulting in a $3.5 million settlement structured with a lump sum payment of $425,000 followed by installments. The settlement plan fell apart when Gristede’s ran into financial trouble and missed its scheduled payments. Thereafter, the workers filed a motion for summary judgment seeking Mr. Catsimatidis personally liable for the payments.

Judge Paul A. Crotty found that under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), the owner, Mr. Catsimatidis was an employer under the law and thus jointly and severally liable for the millions due in overtime pay to the grocery workers.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court found that there was “no aspect of Gristede’s operations from top to bottom and side to side which is beyond Mr. Catsimatidis’ reach. There is no area of Gristede’s which is not subject to his control, whether he chooses to exercise it.” Mr. Catsimatidis’ own affidavit showed that he was the sole owner, president and CEO of Gristede’s and its parent company, which he owned for 20 years, and that he had the right to open, close and reopen stores. He also had the authority to set prices, pick out décor for the stores, and control the store’s signs and advertising.

Although Mr. Catsimatidis argued that he should not be held liable merely because of his title, the Court found that he hired management, reviewed financial documents, worked in the corporate office, dealt with the company’s day to day operations. The Court pointed out that even though he may have delegated certain power to others, Mr. Catsimatidis had the power to delegate. Thus, given all the circumstances and Mr. Catsimatidis’ ownership and authority, he was an employer under the FSLA.

Torres v. Gristedes teaches an expensive lesson to all business owners, officers, directors, and executives who are under the illusion that they cannot be personally liable for their employees’ unpaid compensation. If you have sufficient control and authority of your business, you are at risk for potential personal liability if your company is not financially strong enough to protect you. It is crucial that you classify your workers and pay them in accordance with state and federal law. Call our Wage and Hour Attorneys at Villanueva & Sanchala at (800) 893-9645 to help ensure that you are compliant with wage and hour laws to avoid any future potential personal liability.

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