A federal judge in Newark, New Jersey, imposed a $7,020 sanction on an attorney and the lawyer’s former clients in a wage-and-hour suit for failure to provide discovery.
Elmwood Park, New Jersey, attorney Christopher Karounos and the operators of a Morristown, New Jersey, restaurant called Fig and Lily Garden must each pay half of the sanction for noncompliance with discovery orders and repeated failures to attend court conferences, U.S. Magistrate Judge Andre Espinosa said.
Espinosa also ordered the restaurant operators to respond to any outstanding requests by the plaintiff for payroll records, or else be precluded from relying on those records.
Less Than Opposing Counsel Wanted
A corporation called Mint Enterprises and two individuals, Ugur Mamac and Ramazan Taylan, are the defendants.
The sanction amount represents 15.6 hours spent by the plaintiff’s lawyer, Robert Salaman, responding to the defendants’ failure to abide by discovery orders, at a rate of $450 per hour.
The judge trimmed the sanction request from the 44.5 hours and $20,160 Salaman sought, and declined Salaman’s request to find the restaurant in default for its actions.
Karounos declined to comment when asked about the sanction. Salaman also would not comment.
Litigation Over Wages
The sanction came in a suit claiming the operators of Fig and Lily Garden failed to compensate a cook, Ozcan Aktas, in accordance with federal and state law.
Aktas worked seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., for a total of 105 hours, and received $700 per week, the suit claimed. Aktas also claimed he was fired in November 2019 in retaliation for complaining about being owed wages and not being paid according to law.
Before he began cooking at Fig and Lily Garden, Aktas worked at another business operated by the same defendants, a restaurant called Chef’s Gyro at the Monmouth Mall in Eatontown, from October 2016 to December 2018, he alleged. At that job, he worked six days and 72 hours a week and was paid $1,200 a week for part of that period, but later had his pay cut to $800 a week, the suit claimed.
In January 2019, Aktas began working in construction at Fig and Lily Garden, and was not compensated at all, despite working 105 hours per week, the suit claimed. In June 2019, he began working as a cook, putting in 90 hours and earning $800 a week, the suit claimed.
Failure to Appear
Aktas filed the suit in June 2020, and Karounos joined the case in November 2021.
Karounos and his clients received numerous extensions for completing fact discovery, but failed to appear for an April 18, 2022, conference, according to court papers.
The defendants were given a fact discovery extension until June 24, 2022. However, defendants failed to meet that deadline, did not provide any outstanding discovery, and did not respond to the plaintiff’s emails about the discovery, according to court papers.
Karounos also failed to appear at a status conference set for June 24, 2022, according to court papers. He later explained that he missed the first because he was “out of state” and that his failure to attend the second was “unintentional,” according to court papers.
On June 30, 2022, the court said in a letter that defendants’ noncompliance with obligations was inexcusable, but the judge provided another chance to cure the defendants’ deficiencies. The court, however, warned of sanctions if the parties continued to disregard court orders, according to court papers.
Aktas moved for sanctions on July 29, 2022. When a status conference was scheduled for Aug. 30, Karounos failed to appear for the third time, according to court papers.
On Nov. 10, 2022, the defendants filed a substitution of counsel, terminating Karounos and replacing him with Craig Saunders of Munzer & Saunders in New York as counsel of record.
Espinosa, in ordering Karounos and his former clients to split the cost of the sanction evenly, found that responsibility for the conduct in question was shared.
“[I]t appears from the record that the sanctionable misconduct—failure to comply with discovery obligations, abide by court orders, and appear at conferences—is in part attributable to defendants and in part attributable to Mr. Karounos,” Espinosa wrote. “Accordingly, the court finds that the amount awarded herein to plaintiff shall be borne in equal shares, with defendants responsible, jointly and severally, for 50% of the award and Mr. Karounos responsible, individually, for 50% of the award.”