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Li v. MW South Station, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

June 2, 2017



          F. Dennis Saylor IV United States District Judge.

         This is an action seeking payment of back wages. From 2006 to 2013, plaintiffs worked as cooks and food preparers at Chinese fast-food restaurants called “China Wok.” Defendants MW South Station, Inc., and Auburn Foods Inc., are the corporate owners of two China Wok restaurant locations in Boston and Auburn, Massachusetts. Defendant Donald C. Wong is the president of those corporations. Plaintiffs contend that their manager systematically altered their timecards to reflect fewer hours than they had actually worked, resulting in an underpayment of their wages. The complaint alleges claims under federal law for violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 201 et seq., as well as under the Massachusetts Wage Act, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 149, §§ 148 and 150, and Massachusetts law requiring the payment of minimum wages, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 151, §§ 1 and 20.

         Defendants have moved for partial summary judgment concerning the minimum-wage claims and certain claims that they contend are untimely. For the following reasons, defendants' motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background

         The following facts are taken in the light most favorable to plaintiffs.

         MW South Station, Inc., and Auburn Foods, Inc. are corporate subsidiaries of the same parent corporation, Master Group, Incorporated. (Jonathan Wong Dep. at 4). Both operate Chinese fast-food restaurants called “Master Wok” at different locations. (Def. SMF ¶¶ 1-2). MW South Station operates a restaurant located at 100 Summer Street in Boston, Massachusetts (“Boston Master Wok”). (Id. ¶ 1). Auburn Foods operates a restaurant located at 385 Southbridge Street in Auburn, Massachusetts (“Auburn Master Wok”). (Id. ¶ 2). Donald C. Wong is the president of both corporations. (Id. ¶ 4).

         Wanshen Li, Qin Shi Ruan, and Su Qin Li were formerly employed as cooks and food preparers at Boston Master Wok. (Id. ¶¶ 5-7).[1] Wanshen Li and Su Qin Li also worked at Auburn Master Wok. (Id. ¶¶ 5, 7). All three are Chinese immigrants and do not speak English. (Su Qin Li Aff. ¶ 1; Ruan Aff. ¶ 1; Wanshen Li Dep. 29).

         Company policy at Master Wok required employees to punch a timecard at the beginning and end of each workday to record the hours worked. (Wanshen Li Dep. 47; Han Dep. 33).[2] At the end of each two-week pay period, employees signed their timecards and store managers sent them to a Master Wok central office in New Jersey for processing. (Ling Dep. 39; Jonathan Wong Dep. 22). If a timecard was sent to the central office without a signature, the office would return it to the restaurant location to be signed, which could result in a delay in payment. (Jonathan Wong Dep. 22; Ling Aff. 38).

         Song Chun Ling was the manager at the Boston Master Wok from 2005 to the fall of 2013. (Ling Dep. 36; Su Qin Li Aff. ¶ 2). While she was manager, Ling consistently altered employee timecards, including those of plaintiffs. She testified that when she began managing the Boston China Wok, her manager informed her that it was one of her responsibilities to re-punch timecards for her employees. (Ling Dep. 36). Acting on that direction, she re-punched employee timecards periodically throughout the pay period, purportedly in order to make them appear more orderly. (Id. 22, 36-38). She had employees sign the cards she had re-punched before sending them to the central office for processing. (Id. 36-38). Ling explained that her reason for re-punching cards was that employees sometimes recorded their time in a sloppy manner, and that the central office would reject disorderly timecards, just as they would reject unsigned timecards. (Id.).

         1. Claims of Wanshen Li

         Wanshen Li worked as a cook at the Boston China Wok and Auburn China Wok, among other locations, from April 1, 2006, to August 4, 2013. (Def. SMF ¶ 5; Jonathan Wong Dep. 44).[3] He testified that he did not receive overtime payments while employed at China Wok, and instead the company provided him with a place to live, which a manager explained was “for [his] overtime.” (Wanshen Li Dep. 44). The regional manager for the Boston region, Mei Juan Han, testified that she personally provided housing to some Master Wok employees, including Wanshen Li, in order to help retain employees, but that it was not a part of Master Wok policy to do so. (Han Dep. 42-43, 58-59, 70).

         While Wanshen Li was working at the Boston China Wok location, he punched a timecard at the beginning and end of each day. (Wanshen Li Dep. 47- 48). He testified that for as long as he worked there, he saw Ling tear up the timecards employees had punched, and punch new cards on their behalf. (Id.). He signed timecards Ling had punched for him, although he knew they were “fake, ” because if he did not sign he “wouldn't get paid.” (Id. 48-50). When asked why he did not complain that Ling was replacing his timecards, he responded, “Because she was the manager.” (Id. 48).

         Wanshen Li contends that he now knows that Song had been re-punching his timecard not only to make it appear neater, but also to subtract time for meal breaks that he had not actually taken. (Id. 47). At some point, although it is not clear when, servers who worked in the front of the store and had a better grasp of English informed him that time was being subtracted from his wages. (Id. 29). When he found out that China Wok had been subtracting time from his pay, he testified that he did not complain to anyone because “[l]ife back then was still very hard, so [he] just charged on, and . . . continued to work.” (Id. 30). He contends that although he worked eleven-hour shifts throughout his employment, China Wok only paid him for nine hours each day. (Id. 29).

         2. Claims of Qing Shi Ruan

         Qing Shi Ruan worked as a cook at Boston China Wok from December 1, 2006, through October 31, 2013. (Def. SMF ¶ 6). It was the first job he held after immigrating to the United States. (Ruan Aff. ¶ 12). He testified that he saw Ling re-punch timecards prior to submitting them to the central office. (Ruan Dep. 36). He also testified that he never punched out during lunch hours because he was not allowed to leave for lunch. (Id. 52). He stated that he, and all of the other employees, were aware that Ling re-punched timecards, “but at the time nobody dare[d] speak up.” (Id.). He explained that “in China where I came from, you simply do not question your manager.” (Ruan Aff. ¶ 9). He also stated that he did not know about minimum wage and overtime laws, because such laws do not exist in China. (Id. ¶ 10).

         Ruan contends that he was not paid for two hours of work each day because Ling re-punched his timecard to reflect meal breaks that he had not taken. (Id. ¶ 7). Similarly to Wanshen Li, he contends that he first discovered the underpayment sometime in June or July of 2013, when servers informed him that Master Wok was not paying him for work it counted as breaktime. (Id. ¶ 2).

         3. Claims of Su Qin Li

         Su Qin Li worked at Boston China Wok and Auburn China Wok from May 8, 2006, to August 2015. (Def. Ex. 2 ¶ 2). Her duties included preparatory work, such as cutting meats and vegetables, as well as cleaning the kitchen and front areas. (Id. ¶ 8A).

         Like Wanshen Li and Ruan, Su Qin Li testified that she saw Ling changing her timecard “consistently.” (Su Qin Li Dep. 30-31). She contends that she typically worked 11-hour shifts, for a total of 65 hours of work each week, but that she was not compensated for five-and-a-half hours of work that was deducted for meal breaks. (Id. 31-32). She first learned that China Wok was deducting hours from her pay in September 2013, when she overheard one Master Wok server telling another that “Master Wok is shortchanging its employees.” (Su Qin Li Aff. ¶ 3). She testified that she had never punched out for a break, lunch, or any reason other than leaving at the end of the day. (Id. 30). She testified that she never complained to Ling about the lack of breaks because she “thought it was the right thing.” (Id. 38). She stated, “I thought that was how it was in the back; that when she asked us to go to work, that we'd go to work.” (Id.).

         4. Labor-Law Sign Postings

         Federal regulations require that employers such as Boston China Wok and Auburn China Wok post signs alerting employees to their rights under the labor laws. (See 29 C.F.R. § 516.4). Han, the regional manager, testified unequivocally that such signs were posted at the Boston and Auburn locations. (Han Dep. 60). She stated that the signs were initially posted only in English, but that Chinese signs were later posted at some locations. (Id. 61-62). The Vice President and Director of Operations for Master Group testified that he did not remember seeing labor-law signs posted in restaurants, but qualified that statement by saying that he “wasn't looking for [them].” (Jonathan Wong Dep. 66). Ruan stated that he could not recall seeing labor-law signs posted at Boston China Wok; however, he further explained that even if ...

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