Two Wage Theft Lawyers Focus Efforts on D.C.'s Restaurant Boom

Ben's Chili Bowl, Washington, DC

By Will Sommer 

 From Washington City Paper:

Justin Zelikovitz used to have a pushpin map of the world in his office. Every time the loquacious Chinatown attorney won money for a client over a wage dispute, a new pin went into that client’s home country.

The map was a little tacky, Zelikovitz admits. But it also had a more serious problem: Central America was too small to accommodate all the pins Zelikovitz needed to place.

After filing dozens of lawsuits on behalf of District-area restaurant workers, many of them employed in back-of-the-house jobs like food prep and dishwashing, Zelikovitz’s map needed more real estate for pins in countries like Guatemala and Honduras.

Zelikovitz now has a new, custom-ordered map that displays an enlarged Central America mounted on foam. Nearly a dozen pins cluster around a single Honduran town, the remnants of settlements Zelikovitz’s firm landed for a whole family of restaurant workers. 

“Even that is getting too crowded, especially El Salvador,” Zelikovitz says of his new map.

In recent years, the District’s restaurant industry has enjoyed a boom in both new restaurants and international attention. As a result, there’s never been a better time to run a high-end restaurant in the District—or be a lawyer who sues them.

A good mood reigned Monday in Zelikovitz’s office, where the attorneys there are fresh off a more than $150,000 jury verdict last week against Dupont Circle’s Asia 54.

“We’re always laughing,” Zelikovitz says. “Is that just a defense mechanism?”

Just three years after leaving Maryland Legal Aid and launching his practice, the 33-year-old Zelikovitz has gone from using just a single room in a Chinatown townhouse to renting the entire building. He is one of several attorneys who have discovered that suing District restaurants over wage law violations doubles as doing good and doing good business. 

Zelikovitz and attorney Jonathan Tucker, who left Maryland Legal Aid last year to join the firm, benefit from wage law violations they say can often be caused by scofflaw managers or ignorance among restaurant owners. They have more than 30 active cases, with nearly 20 others on payment plans.

When a restaurant fails to pay a dishwasher minimum wage or time-and-a-half for overtime pay, that’s an opening for the lawyers to send a demand letter on behalf of their clients, many of whom come to them via word of mouth or Spanish-language Google advertisements. 

“Upstairs, people are paying $100 to $150 for dinner,” Zelikovitz says of pricey D.C. restaurants, some of which violate wage laws. “And downstairs, these guys are making $4 to $5 an hour.”

There’s no shortage of opportunities for new lawsuits. Along with construction companies and cleaning businesses, the restaurant industry has some of the most trouble with wage law violations, according to D.C. Jobs with Justice executive director Elizabeth Falcon. Getting restaurant employees what they’re owed is complicated by the fact that many of them don’t speak English or are afraid of losing their jobs. 

Restaurants can typically avoid legal struggles if owners hire good labor lawyers, or if they spend time reviewing their payroll, say Zelikovitz and Tucker. Then again...

“They’re not running a restaurant to look at payroll,” Tucker says. 

The lives of Zelikovitz’s clients can change dramatically by settlement money. One kitchen prep worker, who asked that his name not be used for fear of being blacklisted in the restaurant world, says his backpay will fund his Honduran family’s cattle business. 

Zelikovitz and his clients often have to reduce their settlement demands to get any money from a struggling restaurant. A client might be owed tens of thousands of dollars, but collecting the money proves difficult. That makes cases riskier for Zelikovitz and Tucker, who are paid either through attorney’s fees or a cut of their client’s settlement. “We’re not the Mob,” Zelikovitz says. “We’re attorneys.” 

Efforts to get a big payday for both the attorneys and their clients, many of whom send their wages back to their home countries, are complicated by the fact that the District’s more prominent restaurants can afford better attorneys to vet their payroll practices.

“I would be shocked if Le Diplomate was doing anything wrong,” Zelikovitz says, because the restaurant is in the hands of longtime restaurateur Stephen Starr. On the other hand, he says, “If I were to walk down the street and pop into a random restaurant, I would be shocked if anyone was getting paid by the book.”

But Zelikovitz and Tucker aren’t just pursuing the District’s lower-tier restaurants. Their clients sued trendy Columbia Heights Laotian spot Thip Khao and Chef Johnny Monis’ Little Serow. Both cases were voluntarily dismissed, which almost certainly implies there were settlements with Zelikovitz’s clients. (Zelikovitz wouldn’t confirm settlements, and requests for comment from the restaurants went unreturned.)

In September, Zelikovitz settled an overtime case on behalf of two sushi chefs with Dupont Circle’s Sushi Taro, which happens to have earned one the city’s first Michelin stars. Sushi Taro’s attorney declined to comment on the record about the case, which apparently began with a payroll computer error. 

Tucker says he often reads about a popular restaurant, only to have a restaurant employee come to him months later complaining that he’s been ripped off. 

“Now that success doesn’t look as gleaming as it used to,” Tucker says.

Zelikovitz and Tucker aren’t the only wage lawyers making money off the D.C. area’s restaurant boom. Silver Spring-based lawyer Gregg Greenberg, whose firm has sued Top Chef star Bryan Voltaggio, says it’s easy to find cases. 

“Even the most sophisticated restaurants, they’re violators of the law,” Greenberg says.

Zelikovitz’s lawsuits may have even claimed one restaurant. In 2014, downtown’s Malaysia Kopitiam closed three months after Zelikovitz settled a suit filed on behalf of a former kitchen hand. Parlay Sports Bar and Lounge took over the space, and a year later one of Zelikovitz’s clients sued Parlay, too. 

Zelikovitz’s brand is more than a little pugnacious. His website includes an image macro with a picture of Zelikovitz’s office sign bordered by a quote from Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.” On the business cards for D.C. Wage Law—or “Pago Justo” if you’re looking at the Spanish-language version—are the scales of justice held by a clenched fist. Zelikovitz says the imagery helps illiterate potential clients identify the firm.

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