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Student Work in SCLC Wage and Hour Cases

This past year, Stanford Community Law Clinic students worked diligently on scores of cases in the areas of housing law, wage and hour law, and criminal expungement.  Here are some examples of their work in the wage and hour area.  We will post descriptions of the SCLC’s works in other areas (and the work of the nine other clinics) in the weeks to come.

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Two clinic students represented a restaurant worker who had been denied overtime payments and meal and rest breaks for the duration of his four-year employment at a San Mateo restaurant. Over the course of two quarters, the students pored over the merits of their client’s claim, engaged in heated negotiations with recalcitrant restaurant owners, and one of the students ultimately advocated forcefully at the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement leading to a very favorable settlement of $6000. Their client is extremely happy with the result.

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Two clinic students represented a client in a multi-phased administrative proceeding at the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement; the client worked over 65 hours a week in the kitchen of a restaurant in Mountain View, and was systematically and intentionally deprived of his overtime premiums. The students prepared for the hearing extensively: preparing their client to testify, identifying and preparing a corroborative witness, and preparing documentary evidence in support of their client’s claim. In the face of very aggressive behavior on their opponent’s part, they conducted themselves with utmost professionalism throughout the proceedings. The hearing examiner awarded the clinic’s client over $16,000 in unpaid wages and penalties in a written decision that credited the client’s testimony and the clinic’s presentation of the case. As is his right, the employer sought de novo review in Superior Court, so the students were prepared to wage battle in this new tribunal, now with discovery and motion practice available. However, they quickly realized that the employer had failed to comply with the statutory requirement that an appealing employer post a bond in the amount of the administrative order to perfect the appeal. Now joined by an additional student, the students filed a motion to dismiss, with an impressive brief distinguishing the contrary appellate authority and arguing that the judge had discretion under the statute to dismiss the case. The judge did just that when the students appeared before him and entered a final judgment in their client’s favor for the full amount of the underlying order.

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A team of two students entered into a settlement on a wage case on behalf of their clients–four workers who went entirely unpaid for their final 3.5 months of employment. The workers, a waiter and three busboys, came to the clinic to report that when the restaurant that employed them closed in December 2009, they had not been paid at all for several months. Relying on the boss’s promises that he would come through and that the business would soon thrive, the workers somehow held on. When the manager announced the closing, she handed each worker a stack of paychecks for the unpaid period, but said, in essence, “Don’t bother taking them to the bank; they’re no good.” The workers attempted on their own to reach a deal with the boss, and filed their own administrative wage claims, but then sought legal representation. After investigating the restaurant and learning that it and its principals have several significant debts and liens, the students decided that negotiation was their clients’ only hope of recovering. The students contacted the restaurant owner, who operates several other successful Bay Area restaurants, and prevailed upon him to make good on the paychecks. He agreed to a payment plan, and the clients have been receiving their installment on schedule.

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Another pair of students represented a man who’d worked over ten hours a day in a Palo Alto restaurant but was not been paid the overtime to which the law entitled him.  The students represented the client in an administrative hearing at the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) where they led the client through direct examination, and began the cross-examination of a witness proffered by the defendant restaurant owner.  Based on how the hearing was going, the employer agreed to negotiations, and the students were able to work out an agreement very favorable to their client.  The case provided important lessons not only in administrative/trial advocacy and negotiation, but also on immigration patterns and the low-wage work force, as both the clinic’s client and the restaurant owner were immigrants, separated in their immigration to the U.S. by only approximately ten years.

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A student represented a woman who cleaned houses for a very small company operating out of Sunnyvale.  The client was to be paid $12 an hour, but had several weeks when she was not paid at all, and some where she was under-paid.  In total, she was owed over $1200.  The student established communication with the former employer, explaining the client’s claim, asserting her rights to payment records, and asking for the opportunity to resolve the matter.  Rather than ever sitting down and discussing the case fully, the employer produced a check for a portion of the wages owed after increasingly assertive communication from the student, who eventually filed a complaint with the DLSE.  Upon receipt of that complaint, the employer paid in full.  The client was very happy with the outcome.  In addition to negotiating and drafting experience, the case gave the student the chance to work closely with a low-wage worker, and to learn that she did not want to pursue any penalties to which the law entitled her for her delayed wages.  She just wanted what she felt she was owed, and not a penny more.

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Another student represented a day laborer whose employer failed to pay him fully for his work.  After promising to come to the office for negotiations, the former employer disappeared and stopped returning the student’s phone calls.  Undaunted, the student, with an assist from a fellow clinic student, researched the applicable provisions of the Business & Professions Code and filed a claim against the employer’s contractor’s bond.  While these bonds are typically used to make homeowners whole for unfinished or otherwise inadequate work performed by a licensed contractor, the statute also provides for relief for unpaid wages.  The insurance company investigated the claim, and paid it out in full.

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One clinic student represented a woman who worked as a housekeeper for a janitorial company in Palo Alto.  The client was to be paid $70 per day for her work.  For the duration of her employment she worked at least 10 overtime hours per week, however her employer routinely paid her a flat rate of $70 per day, regardless of the overtime pay she earned.  Additionally, the client was rarely permitted to take rest and meal breaks as mandated by law.  The student assigned to this case initiated negotiations with the employer, who was recalcitrant and uncooperative at first, denying that the client was owed anything at all.  The student decided to lay out the legal claims in a demand letter which promptly brought the employer to the table.  Based on  interactions with this employer, the student’s instinct was to prepare and file a DLSE complaint that could be served on the employer at the settlement meeting to signal to the employer the gravity of the situation and his potential liability.  This strategy was incredibly effective; after several rounds of negotiations, the case ultimately settled on favorable terms for the client.  The case provided an excellent opportunity to brainstorm negotiation strategies, draft an administrative complaint, craft a settlement agreement, counsel his client, and see a case through from start to finish. 

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