SANCHEZ v. PLAZA AZTECA SICKLERVILLE
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER denying Defendants' 14 Motion for Summary Judgment. Signed by Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez on 9/20/2017. (dmr)
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UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
Civil Action No. 16-4580
Hon. Joseph H. Rodriguez
PLAZA AZTECA SICKLERVILLE, INC., :
RUBEN LEON, MARIANBELI SAEZ,
JOHN DOES 1-3,
This matter is before the Court on Defendants’ motion for partial
summary judgment. Oral argument was held on May 2, 2017 and the record
of that proceeding is incorporated in the Court’s decision. For the reasons
discussed on the record, and those provided below, the Defendants’ motion
will be denied.
Plaintiff Yanitzen Sanchez filed the Complaint in this matter against
her former employer alleging violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29
U.S.C. § 201, (“FLSA”), (Count I) and the New Jersey Wage & Hour Law,
N.J. Stat. Ann. § 34:11-56a, (“NJWHL”), (Count II). Plaintiff also asserted a
common law claim for unjust enrichment, breach of contract, and violation
of good faith and fair dealing (Count III). Defendants Plaza Azteca
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Sicklerville, Inc., its President Ruben Leon, and Vice President of
Operations Mariangeli Saez seek summary judgment on Counts I and II
and a declaration that Plaintiff’s termination was not a breach of contract
or other duties as stated in Count III.
Summary Judgment Standard
“Summary judgment is proper if there is no genuine issue of material
fact and if, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving
party, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Pearson
v. Component Tech. Corp., 247 F.3d 471, 482 n.1 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing
Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)); accord Fed. R. Civ. P. 56
(a). Thus, the Court will enter summary judgment in favor of a movant who
shows that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, and supports the
showing that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact by “citing to
particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions,
documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations,
stipulations . . . admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.”
Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 (c)(1)(A).
An issue is “genuine” if supported by evidence such that a reasonable
jury could return a verdict in the nonmoving party’s favor. Anderson v.
Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is “material” if, under
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the governing substantive law, a dispute about the fact might affect the
outcome of the suit. Id. In determining whether a genuine issue of material
fact exists, the court must view the facts and all reasonable inferences
drawn from those facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.
Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).
Initially, the moving party has the burden of demonstrating the
absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. Once
the moving party has met this burden, the nonmoving party must identify,
by affidavits or otherwise, specific facts showing that there is a genuine
issue for trial. Id.; Maidenbaum v. Bally’s Park Place, Inc., 870 F. Supp.
1254, 1258 (D.N.J. 1994). Thus, to withstand a properly supported motion
for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must identify specific facts
and affirmative evidence that contradict those offered by the moving party.
Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256-57. “A nonmoving party may not ‘rest upon mere
allegations, general denials or . . . vague statements . . . .’” Trap Rock Indus.,
Inc. v. Local 825, Int’l Union of Operating Eng’rs, 982 F.2d 884, 890 (3d
Cir. 1992) (quoting Quiroga v. Hasbro, Inc., 934 F.2d 497, 500 (3d Cir.
the plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of
summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon
motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient
to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s
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case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at
Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. That is, the movant can support the assertion that
a fact cannot be genuinely disputed by showing that “an adverse party
cannot produce admissible evidence to support the [alleged dispute of]
fact.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(B); accord Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2).
In deciding the merits of a party’s motion for summary judgment, the
court’s role is not to evaluate the evidence and decide the truth of the
matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.
Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Credibility determinations are the province of
the factfinder. Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358,
1363 (3d Cir. 1992).
Plaintiff was hired as a chef for Defendants’ restaurant in January of
2015 with a promised salary of $80,000 and her employment was
terminated in January of 2016. She argues that Defendants failed to pay her
the full amount of wages due and failed to pay her overtime compensation
to which she was entitled. She also argues that her termination without
cause was in breach of contract and the duty of good faith and fair dealing
and unjustly enriched Defendants. Defendants argue that as a salaried
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executive whose primary duties were managerial, Plaintiff was exempt from
the overtime provisions of the FLSA and NJWHL.
The parties entered into an employment contract signed on February
18, 2015. (Saez Cert., Ex. A.) The contract describes Plaintiff’s
responsibilities as those of “the kitchen equivalent of a CEO,” “responsible
for all of the daily operations of the kitchen.” (Id.) It further provides:
He or she must maintain control of the kitchen and the people
who work there so that the food that leaves the kitchen meets
the requirements. The Executive Chef serves as a role model
and mentor to the chefs, and must maintain a professional
appearance and demeanor at all times.
The Corp chef will train and manage kitchen personnel and
supervise/coordinate all related culinary activities; estimate
food consumption and requisition or purchase food; select and
develop recipes; standardize production recipes to ensure
consistent quality; establish presentation technique and quality
standards; plan and price menus; ensure proper equipment
operation/maintenance; and ensure proper safety and
sanitation in kitchen. The executive chef may cook selected
items or for select occasions. The executive chef may oversee
special catering events and may also offer culinary instruction
and or demonstrate culinary techniques. The executive chef
directly supervises kitchen personnel with responsibility for
hiring, discipline, performance reviews and initiating pay
(Id.) The contract also required Plaintiff to “interview, select, train,
supervise, counsel and discipline all employees in the department,” and to
“provide, develop, train, and maintain a professional work force.” (Id.)
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For compensation, Plaintiff was to receive a salary at a rate of
$80,000 per year, paid bi-weekly. The contract states, “the payment will be
made gross and treated as an independent contractor salary,” and notes
that “you will be responsible for any withholdings due.” (Id.)1 The contract
does not limit Defendants’ ability to terminate Plaintiff, with or without
cause, nor did it guarantee any specific time period with which Plaintiff
would remain under Defendants’ employ.
The FLSA provides that employers are required to pay overtime
compensation to employees who work over forty hours per work week.
However, 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1) states that any person employed in a bona
fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity is exempt from this
mandatory overtime compensation provision. To qualify as exempt, the
employee must satisfy the criteria set forth in 29 C.F.R. § 541.100. Pursuant
to the Regulations, an executive employee is an employee:
(1) Compensated on a salary basis pursuant to § 541.600 at a
rate per week of not less than the 40th percentile of weekly
earnings of full-time nonhourly workers in the lowest-wage
Census Region (or 84 percent of that amount per week, if
employed in American Samoa by employers other than the
Federal government), exclusive of board, lodging or other
facilities. Beginning January 1, 2020, and every three years
thereafter, the Secretary shall update the required salary
amount pursuant to § 541.607;
Plaintiff alleges that Defendants “improperly characterized” her as an
independent contractor. (Compl. ¶ 23.)
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(2) Whose primary duty is management of the enterprise in
which the employee is employed or of a customarily recognized
department or subdivision thereof;
(3) Who customarily and regularly directs the work of two or
more other employees; and
(4) Who has the authority to hire or fire other employees or
whose suggestions and recommendations as to the hiring,
firing, advancement, promotion or any other change of status of
other employees are given particular weight.
29 C.F.R. § 541.100.
The Regulations set forth a qualitative, not quantitative, test for
whether an employee is a bona fide executive. Under this multi-factor
quantitative test, 2 “primary duty” does not connote the most time-intensive
of an employee’s functions but instead refers to the “principal, main, major
or most important” duty performed by the employee, regardless of how
much time she devotes to it. See 29 C.F.R. § 541.700(a). “A job title alone is
insufficient to establish the exempt status of an employee. The exempt or
These factors include:
[T]he relative importance of the exempt duties as compared
with other types of duties; the amount of time spent performing
exempt work; the employee’s relative freedom from direct
supervision; and the relationship between the employee’s salary
and the wages paid to other employees for the kind of
nonexempt work performed by the employee.
29 C.F.R. § 541.700
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nonexempt status of any particular employee must be determined on the
basis of whether the employee’s salary and duties meet the requirements of
the regulations in this part.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.2.
The Regulations define “management duties” as follows.
Generally, “management” includes, but is not limited to,
activities such as interviewing, selecting, and training of
employees; setting and adjusting their rates of pay and hours of
work; directing the work of employees; maintaining production
or sales records for use in supervision or control; appraising
employees’ productivity and efficiency for the purpose of
recommending promotions or other changes in status; handling
employee complaints and grievances; disciplining employees;
planning the work; determining the techniques to be used;
apportioning the work among the employees; determining the
type of materials, supplies, machinery, equipment or tools to be
used or merchandise to be bought, stocked and sold; controlling
the flow and distribution of materials or merchandise and
supplies; providing for the safety and security of the employees
or the property; planning and controlling the budget; and
monitoring or implementing legal compliance measures.
29 C.F.R. § 541.102.
The burden of proving the FLSA exemption is on the emploryer, “and
if the record is unclear as to some exemption requirement, the employer
will be held not to have satisfied its burden.” Martin v. Cooper Elec. Supply
Co., 940 F2d 896, 900 (3d Cir. 1991). See also Lawrence v. City of
Phildelphia, 527 F.3d 299, 310 (3d Cir. 2008) (“FLSA exemptions should be
construed narrowly, that is, against the employer.”).
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Here, Plaintiff’s contract states her position was “the kitchen
equivalent of a CEO,” and that she was responsible for “all of the daily
operations of the kitchen. [Plaintiff] must maintain control of the kitchen
and the people who work there.” Further, the contract provides that
Plaintiff was responsible for training and managing kitchen personnel and
supervising all related culinary activities. The contract states, “[t]he
executive chef directly supervises kitchen personnel with responsibility for
hiring, discipline, performance reviews, and initiating pay raises.”
However, Plaintiff has submitted a Certification stating that she was
not paid in accordance with her employment contract and did not perform
the duties outlined by the contract. Specifically, she certifies:
I did not set or adjust rates of pay and hours of work of employees.
I did not maintain production or sales records.
I did not discipline employees.
Defendants instructed me what type of food supplies could be used,
bought, stocked and sold.
I did not handle employee complaints and grievances.
I did not plan or control the budget.
(Sanchez Cert. ¶ 15-20.)
As such, a genuine issue of material fact exists within the record
presently before the Court, and summary judgment must be denied.
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The movants have not established that Plaintiff’s primary duty was
management of the restaurant’s kitchen or that Plaintiff customarily
and regularly directed the work of two or more other employees.
There is no evidence to rebut or impeach Plaintiff’s sworn statement
that she did not have the authority to hire or fire other employees or
otherwise change their status. Accordingly, Defendants have not met
their initial burden on summary judgment of establishing that they
are entitled to judgment as a matter of law on any of the three claims.
For these reasons,
IT IS ORDERED this 20th day of September, 2017 that
Defendants’ motion for summary judgment  is hereby DENIED.
/s/ Joseph H. Rodriguez
JOSEPH H. RODRIGUEZ
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