Employer retaliation in violation of federal law (punishing of an employee for engaging in legally protected activity) can take many forms – demotion, discipline, salary reduction, a job or shift reassignment. Sometimes it’s more subtle than that. And then other times, it’s a driveway full of oily pennies.
An employer in Georgia is facing a federal lawsuit for workplace retaliation for doing just that. The U.S. Department of Labor alleges the incident began with a former employee complaining to its offices about not receiving his final paycheck – an act that violates federal law.
The incident made headlines when the girlfriend of the former auto repair shop employee posted a video on her Instagram of the oil-slicked, coppery mess in their driveway. In total, there were 91,500 pennies dumped in the driveway, the employee’s final paycheck sitting on top, addressed with a handwritten expletive.
The DOL filed its federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, alleging the act was employer retaliation for a complaint the former employee made to federal authorities in January 2021 to report he hadn’t received his final paycheck for $915. His last day worked had been in November 2020. The pennies were dumped on the former employee’s driveway in March 2021.
According to the filing, the employer claimed that his office had indeed prepared the paycheck, but it “never made it to the mail.” When federal regulators called the auto shop the day after receiving the complaint, he refused to pay it. He then changed his mind, but decided to do so with a mountain of pennies that were covered in oil. The mess took seven hours to clear, with at least one wheelbarrow wheel busting under the weight of the pennies as they were hauled from the driveway.
When word of the incident began to pick up press, the shop owner created a page on his website to address it. He indicated that the action was a “gotcha to a subpar ex-employee,” who he then appeared to accuse of stealing, killing animals, and being a lazy worker. That message, which was later taken down, was characterized by the Department of labor as “defamatory,” further supporting allegations that the shop owner had retaliated against the former employee in violation of the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act.
When the auto shop owner was contacted by a local news station about the incident, he said he “couldn’t remember” dumping 500 pounds of pennies in the driveway, but that it “didn’t matter” because the worker was paid.
As our Los Angeles employment lawyers can explain, it does matter. A worker contacting and engaging with the Department of Labor or other federal regulators is considered protected activity, and punishing them for it is considered retaliation. Workers have the legal right to receive information about their workplace rights AND to receive the wages they earned without fear that they’ll be harassed or intimidated for it.
The lawsuit alleges the shop owner:
- Failed to pay the worker in question legally-required overtime rates.
- Failed to keep adequate and accurate records of employee pay rates and work hours.
- Engaged in employee retaliation against federal law.
For this worker and at least seven others, the agency alleges the shop owner owes nearly $37,000 in back wages and damages.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Newport Beach, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.
U.S. Sues Shop Owner Who Dumped 91,500 Pennies on Ex-Worker’s Driveway, Jan. 9, 2022, By Michael Levenson, The New York Times
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