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You v. Grand China Buffet & Grill, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia

March 18, 2019

TING YOU, on behalf of himself and others similarly situated and also known as Danny You, Plaintiff,
v.
GRAND CHINA BUFFET & GRILL, INC., doing business as Grand China Buffet & Grill; ATLANTIC BUFFET & GRILL, LLC, doing business as Grand China Buffet & Grill; QI FENG CHEN; AMANDA CHEN; and HUI CHEN, Defendants.

         MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [DKT. NO. 93], GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SANCTIONS [DKT. NO. 86], AND DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO WITHDRAW AS COUNSEL [DKT. NO. 83]

          IRENE M. KEELEY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This suit presents claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201-219, as well as state law claims for unlawful employment practices. The plaintiff, Ting You, also known as Danny You (“Mr. You”), asserts that he is a former employee of Grand China Buffet and Grill (“the Buffet”), a restaurant previously located at 270 Emily Drive in Clarksburg, West Virginia.

         Pending is a motion for summary judgment filed by defendants Grand China Buffet & Grill, Inc., doing business as Grand China Buffet & Grill (“Grand China”), Qi Feng Chen (“Mr. Chen”), and Hui Chen (“Mrs. Chen”). Also pending is a motion for sanctions filed by Grand China and the Chens, as well as a motion to withdraw as counsel filed by Mr. You's attorneys. For the reasons that follow, the Court GRANTS the motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 93), GRANTS in part and DENIES in part the motion for sanctions (Dkt. No. 86), and DENIES the motion to withdraw as counsel (Dkt. No. 83), subject to renewal.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         As it must, the Court reviews the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, Mr. You. See Providence Square Assocs., L.L.C. v. G.D.F., Inc., 211 F.3d 846, 850 (4th Cir. 2000).

         Mr. You alleges that he worked as a waiter at the Buffet from approximately April 10, 2013, to March 29, 2015, with the exception of two months in the summer of 2013 (Dkt. No. 1 at 3, 6).[1]According to Mr. You, Mr. and Mrs. Chen owned and/or operated the Buffet throughout the duration of his employment. Mr. You alleges that the Chens, as owner-operators, had the authority to hire and fire employees, to create work schedules, and to decide how much employees were to be paid. Id. at 4-5.

         Mr. You asserts that he worked twelve to thirteen hours per day, six days per week at the Buffet, for a total of seventy-four (74) hours each week. Id. at 7. According to Mr. You, the defendants paid him no wages, and he relied solely on tips, which were subject to a “demerit system” if customers complained about their meals or left without paying the full bill. Id. Mr. You further alleges that he did not receive any overtime pay, nor was he informed that his tips counted toward the minimum wage. Id. at 7-8.

         B. Procedural Background

         Mr. You filed suit against Grand China and the Chens in this Court on March 16, 2017, alleging violations of the FLSA and of West Virginia labor laws relating to minimum wages, overtime wages, and the illegal retention of tips (Dkt. No. 1 at 12-17). Mr. You's complaint also named as a defendant Atlantic Buffet and Grill, LLC, d/b/a Grand China Buffet & Grill (“Atlantic”).[2] Mr. You's specific allegations against Atlantic are limited and, at most, allege that the Buffet was owned by Atlantic at some point during his employment.[3] See id. at 3-4. As relief, Mr. You seeks “(1) unpaid minimum wage, (2) unpaid overtime wages, (3) the full portion of tips illegally retained and pocked [sic] by Owner/Operator Defendants; (4) liquidated damages, (5) prejudgment and post-judgment interest; and (6) attorneys' fees and costs, ” and any other relief the Court deems appropriate. Id. at 2.

         Following the entry of an initial scheduling order (Dkt. No. 26), Mr. You moved for conditional certification of a collective action under the FLSA and the implementation of a court-facilitated notice plan (Dkt. No. 34). In support of his request, he alleged that the defendants regularly failed to compensate him and other employees for time worked in excess of forty (40) hours per week in violation of the FLSA and proposed to represent a collective of former and current restaurant employees. Based on insufficient factual evidence, the Court concluded that Mr. You had failed to meet even his minimal burden of demonstrating the existence of a putative class of similarly situated persons and therefore denied his motion for conditional certification (Dkt. No. 77). The case thereafter proceeded as to Mr. You only.

         During discovery, Grand China filed a motion to compel based on Mr. You's inadequate responses to its requests for production. During a hearing on February 2, 2018, the Court granted the motion to compel and ordered Mr. You to supplement his responses within ten (10) days (Dkt. No. 62). Thereafter, counsel for Grand China notified the Court of Mr. You's failure to comply with the order (Dkt. Nos. 61; 62). During a subsequent show cause hearing, the Court ordered that Mr. You be deposed within thirty (30) days at the Clarksburg, West Virginia, point of holding court, and that the parties divide equally the cost of the interpreter required for the deposition (Dkt. No. 76).

         After being advised of Mr. You's availability by his counsel and after obtaining a qualified translator, counsel for Grand China and the Chens noticed Mr. You's deposition for April 10, 2018 (Dkt. Nos. 82-3; 82-4). On March 30, 2018, Mr. You's attorneys advised opposing counsel that they could no longer confirm their client's availability on that date, and that he “refused to consent to any date” to be deposed (Dkt. No. 82-2). When defense counsel sought clarification, Mr. You's attorneys confirmed that Mr. You would not be appearing at his deposition, despite the Court's prior order (Dkt. No. 82-1).

         Now pending is Grand China and the Chens' motion for summary judgment on Mr. You's claims (Dkt. No. 93). In support of their motion, the defendants argue that the claims against them are time-barred by the applicable statutes of limitations (Dkt. No. 94 at 2-5). Specifically, Grand China and the Chens contend that they sold the Buffet to Atlantic on August 31, 2013, a date prior to Mr. You's earliest possible “reach-back” date for alleged violations under the FLSA and West Virginia labor laws. Thus, they cannot be liable for Mr. You's allegedly unpaid wages or any other alleged wage and hour violations.[4] Id. In response, Mr. You contends that genuine issues of material fact exist as to when Grand China and the Chens stopped operating the Buffet (Dkt. No. 96 at 6-8).

         Grand China and the Chens have also moved for sanctions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37. They argue that sanctions are appropriate in this case because Mr. You repeatedly failed to satisfy his discovery obligations and twice failed to comply with orders of this Court (Dkt. No. 87). Also pending is a motion to withdraw as counsel filed by Mr. You's attorneys (Dkt. No. 83).

         II. MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

         A. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is appropriate only “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court reviews all the evidence “in the light most favorable” to the nonmoving party. Providence Square Assocs., L.L.C. v. G.D.F., Inc., 211 F.3d 846, 850 (4th Cir. 2000). The Court must avoid weighing the evidence or determining its truth and limit its inquiry solely to a determination of whether genuine issues of triable fact exist. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986).

         The moving party bears the initial burden of informing the Court of the basis for the motion and of establishing the nonexistence of genuine issues of fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the moving party has made the necessary showing, the non-moving party “must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The “mere existence of a scintilla of evidence” favoring the non-moving party will not prevent ...


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