A Manhattan federal court has awarded $2,672,657 in damages to nine Korean and two Latino workers against Kum Gang San, a Korean restaurant with branches in Manhattan and Flushing, and its owner, Ji Sung Yoo. The defendants failed to pay minimum wages and overtime pay and stole tips from the workers, in violation of federal and state labor laws.
Ken Kimerling, Legal Director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), who represented the workers, said: “This is an important decision against a large and well-known restaurant. It should act as both a deterrent to restaurants that do not follow labor laws and an encouragement to other immigrant workers to stand up for their rights.”
After a four-day bench trial last June, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Dollinger of the Southern District of New York found that the plaintiffs, wait staff, bussers, and one chef, who were on the job at least 10-12 hours a day, five to seven days a week, were not paid even the minimum wage and rarely received overtime pay. In addition, Kum Gang San had routinely taken part of the wait staff’s tips from customers who used credit cards and from their banquet customers. The restaurant forced the plaintiffs, on occasion, to work involuntarily without any pay on their days off, and they were required to pick vegetables at the owner’s farm outside of New York City. One worker who refused to go to the farm was forced to quit. The Court also found that the restaurant systematically had created false employee time cards to avoid being found in violation of the labor laws.
Two other individual defendants were also found liable for the damages: Kyung Le Yoo, the owner’s younger brother, who was in charge of financial matters at both restaurants and who supervised the falsification of employee time records in connection with a New York State Department of Labor investigation, and Chunsik Yu, who has been general manager of the Flushing branch and in charge of all customer-serving personnel, including wait staff and bussers.
Plaintiff Tae Ho Kim said: “It doesn’t feel real. I knew that we’d win, that we should win, but the victory hasn’t settled in yet. There are a lot of restaurants out there that fail to pay the proper amount of wages, and I really wish they’d run the restaurants properly. The Korean community is aware of the victory, and I’m guessing this will bring about some changes in the near future. It was a difficult and grueling process. We were intimidated and threatened throughout the trial, and we’re glad this is over.”
Juan Cartagena, President and General Counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF said: “These workers showed great courage in coming forward, and their claims were found wholly credible by the court. Unfortunately, widespread wage theft and unfair treatment of low-wage workers in the food preparation and restaurant industries are often not exposed and those responsible made accountable.”
Plaintiff Julian Ventura said: “I am very grateful to my lawyers, who obtained a great result. This is a very big breakthrough to address all the abuse that I and my co-workers suffered from the owners. This victory is very important for all workers who suffer from abuse by their employers. Workers should not be afraid to denounce abusive employers and report them to the appropriate labor authorities, or to take them to court to recover all the wages they’re legally entitled to.”
“Shearman & Sterling is pleased and proud to have utilized a multilingual team of lawyers and staff to participate in obtaining a life-changing result for these hard-working plaintiffs,” said Henry Weisburg, the Shearman & Sterling partner in New York who led the firm’s pro bono efforts.
The Korean and Latino workers were represented by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and on a pro bono basis, the law firm of Shearman & Sterling, LLP.
Download a copy of the 151-page decision here.