Appeals Court Clears Way for Restaurant Worker Exploitation Case to Continue

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
June 17, 2005 12:00 am

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Waitresses Subjected to Sex Discrimination by New Jersey Chinese Restaurant, ACLU Charges

PHILADELPHIA — The American Civil Liberties Union today announced that a federal appeals court has ruled that a sex discrimination and labor exploitation lawsuit brought by two immigrant waitresses against a New Jersey Chinese restaurant may continue.

“The court has recognized that these women are entitled to a fair and open hearing to present their complaints,” said Claudia Flores, a staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project who argued on behalf of the women. “Labor exploitation is a serious problem that plagues many immigrant workers, especially women. We hope that this case sends a strong message to employers that abuse and sex discrimination will not be tolerated.”

The case was filed in June 2003 against King Chef Chinese Restaurant in Wayne, New Jersey, on behalf of two immigrant waitresses, Mei Ying Liu and Shu Fang Chen. The women charged that from May 2000 to November 2001 they were kept under the complete control of their employers, were paid no wages for their work, had to pay a daily kickback out of their tips to the restaurant owners, faced gender and ethnicity discrimination, were housed in an overcrowded, vermin-filled apartment and were threatened with death when they stopped working at the restaurant.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit on their behalf in 2003 charging that the restaurant’s practices violated federal and state labor laws as well as federal and state civil rights laws. When the restaurant failed to respond to the lawsuit, a federal judge ordered the restaurant to pay $3.5 million to the women, who had worked an average of 80 hours per week, six days a week, and were never paid wages or overtime. Yet when the restaurant argued that the defendants had never been properly served with the complaint, the court set aside the judgment and threw out the entire lawsuit, thus denying the waitresses the chance to present their case.

In a decision released late yesterday, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the district court erred by not giving prior notice before dismissing the case. Because the court gave no notice in advance of the dismissal, Liu and Chen had no chance to show that three of the seven defendants had in fact been served with the complaint and that the remaining four evaded service in order to avoid responsibility.

The case will now go back to district court for further proceedings.

The lawsuit, Liu v. Oriental Buffet Inc., was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey in Newark, before Judge Katharine F. Hayden. The lawsuit also names An Na Zheng, Xiao Yang Zheng, Ben Liang Zhu, Frank Chan, Metropolitan Buffet and Di Gi Ching as defendants in the case.

In addition to Flores, co-counsel for Liu and Chen are Lenora Lapidus, Director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project; Edward Barocas, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey; and Samuel Cornish of the New Jersey based law firm Lowenstein, Sandler PC, who serve as volunteer attorneys for the ACLU of New Jersey.

A copy of the court’s decision is available online at /node/35103.

The complaint in Liu v. Oriental Buffet Inc. is available online at /node/35097.

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