Just when things were moving in the right direction for Roberto Donna, the celebrity chef now finds himself on the hook for potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the D.C. Wage Payment and Collection Law (DCWPCL).
On Tuesday, Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled the Donna was “personally liable under the FLSA and DCWPCL for minimum wage, overtime, and equal pay violations because he is an employer under both the FLSA and DCWPCL.”
Lamberth set a hearing for 11 a.m. Thursday, August 5, to determine the damages to 11 former employees who worked at Galileo in the District and Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City. According to an article Wednesday in Law360, the employees’ attorney, Denise Marie Clark, noted that “her clients originally sought roughly $400,000 in damages, but would revise the figure to take into account wages they received.”
It still could mean that Donna will be personally liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages at a time when he’s still trying to launch Galileo III in downtown D.C.
The class action suit was filed in April 2008 by two bussers, seven servers, floor manager Hicham el Hallou and personal assistant/marketing and public relations coordinator Elizabeth Scott. According to Lamberth’s opinion from Tuesday:
Plaintiffs worked for defendants for various periods between 1992 and 2008. (Pls.’ Mot.  for Summ. J. at 2-4.) During plaintiffs’ employment, defendants often failed to meet the wage and record keeping requirements of FLSA and DCWPCL. For example, defendants improperly maintained payroll records, and as a result, they either did not provide pay stubs or provided inaccurate pay stubs to plaintiffs. (See, e.g., Ventura Aff. ¶ 5; Douah Aff. ¶ 6.) In addition, defendants failed to track plaintiffs’ overtime hours, even though plaintiffs regularly worked more than forty hours a week. (See, e.g., Ventura Aff. ¶¶ 3, 5; Scott Aff. ¶ 7.)
Consequently, plaintiffs were often not paid overtime. (Id.) Furthermore, defendants failed regularly to pay the minimum wage for tipped employees. (See, e.g., Douah Aff. ¶ 6; Vuckovic Aff. ¶ 4.) Plaintiffs’ paychecks were sometimes for zero dollars, were post-dated and would bounce, or were unsigned. (Id.; see also Pls.’ Mot. for Summ J. Ex. B.) On other occasions, plaintiffs did not even receive their paychecks. (Scott Aff. ¶ 13.) Moreover, defendants withheld plaintiffs’ tips. (See, e.g., Vuckovic Aff. ¶ 5; Douah Aff. ¶ 5; Ramos Aff. ¶ 10.) Defendants also paid plaintiff Rosa Rivas $3.35 an hour while her male counterpart, plaintiff Jesus Ventura, was paid $8 an hour to perform the same job. (Rivas Aff. ¶ 4.)
Plaintiffs complained to Donna about their wages on several occasions. In response, he either promised to pay plaintiffs their wages, or he told them that he was unable to pay them because of Bebo Trattoria’s debts and bills. (See, e.g., Ventura Aff. ¶ 7; Romic Aff. ¶ 10.) If he did pay them, he often paid only a portion of their unpaid wages.
After months of motions and extensions and general foot shuffling, the case came to a head in June after Donna’s second attorney, Philip Zipin, withdrew his services. (An earlier attorney withdrew from the case in 2008.) The chef appeared in court on June 4. According to court documents:
Defendant Roberto Donna, who is also the owner of the corporate defendants, personally appeared at the hearing. He stated that he could not afford counsel for either himself or his corporations. He further stated that he understood that failure to obtain representation for corporate defendants would result in default with respect to corporate defendants because a corporation cannot appear pro se. See Bristol Petrol. Corp. v. Harris, 901 F.2d 165, 168 n.1 (D.C. Cir. 1990). The Court then informed defendant Donna that it had to grant Philip Zipin’s motion  to withdraw as counsel for defendants because the Court will not force counsel to work for free. As a result, corporate defendants, Bebo Foods, Inc., and RD Trattoria, Inc., are no longer represented by counsel, and defendant Donna represents himself pro se.
It’s not clear whether this ruling will be the death knell for Galileo III. But here’s one bit of hopeful evidence for those still hoping Donna will resurrect his old restaurant: On the very day of the court ruling against him, Donna went onto DonRockwell.com to post a job notice for a mixologist for his new restaurant.
The chef claims Galileo III will open next month.