Settlement Recovering Wages and Damages for Day Laborers Not Paid for Hurricane Katrina Clean-Up

With immigration issues continuing to generate heated debate across the country, the rights of undocumented workers will increasingly be argued in the courts. Zuckerman Spaeder and CASA of Maryland, Inc. litigated a civil action in which day laborers who had not been paid for clean-up and recovery work they did in the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina obtained trebled damages.

Beginning in the summer of 2006, Zuckerman Spaeder attorneys joined those from CASA, a community organization that provides employment, education, community, legal, social, and health services to Latino and African immigrants throughout the Washington, DC region, to represent 46 immigrant workers from Latin America in a lawsuit to recover unpaid wages. The workers had been recruited in and around Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, Maryland, in September 2005 by a Maryland subcontractor who promised them $10 per hour in wages, plus food and lodging. Upon their hire, the subcontractor transported the workers to devastated casinos in Mississippi, where they spent most of the next two months working seven days a week, up to 12 hours a day, pulling large debris from the water, cleaning out rotten food from the kitchens, and shoveling away mud. When the workers returned to Maryland in late October, the subcontractor refused to pay them in full for their work. That winter, some workers faced eviction, others had to stand in line at soup kitchens, and others were forced to borrow money at exorbitant interest rates.

In December 2005, CASA filed an action on the workers’ behalf in federal court in Maryland against the subcontractor and against the general contractor on the project. The case was certified as a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Zuckerman Spaeder partner Ellen D. Marcus joined the effort by developing a strategy, conducting discovery, and negotiating a $100,000 settlement agreement with the general contractor. The settlement paid the workers their regular and overtime wages in full, less costs for administering the settlement fund.

Zuckerman Spaeder also filed a motion on the workers’ behalf against the Maryland subcontractor and its principals for summary judgment, seeking trebled damages totaling more than $231,000 under Maryland wage law and other relief. On June 14, 2007, the court heard oral argument on that motion, as well as the motion for approval of the settlement with the general contractor. Ms. Marcus argued on behalf of the workers, emphasizing that the unpaid wages for each worker were calculated using the subcontractors’ own contemporaneous time records and that the subcontractor had admitted in its papers that it still owed the workers more than $44,000 in wages but had done nothing to rectify the situation.

On August 8, 2007, the court ruled against the subcontractor and its principals, finding that there was no bona fide dispute that the company owed the workers their regular and overtime wages, and that a jury should determine what additional damages were due. On the eve of trial in November 2007, the parties engaged in a mediation, during which they agreed to settle the case, with the subcontractor defendants agreeing to pay the plaintiffs an additional $150,000 in trebled damages.

According to CASA, this was the first case in the country to secure relief for mistreated Hurricane Katrina clean-up workers. In June, Zuckerman Spaeder’s work on this case was recognized when Ms. Marcus received the 2008 Maryland Pro Bono Service Award from the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.

‎Marroquin v. Canales (D. Md., Civil Case No. 1:05-cv-03393505)