Korean port truck driver challenges retaliatory lawsuit
LOS ANGELES — (Sept. 21, 2017) — Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles (Advancing Justice-LA) and Bird, Marella, Boxer, Wolpert, Nessim,Drooks, Lincenberg & Rhow P.C.(Bird Marella) filed a cross-complaint in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of Hyun Song, a former employee of JST Systems, Inc. (JST). The cross-complaint includes wage and hour violations in excess of $300,000, in addition to damages from a retaliatory suit filed by Song’s former employer.
JST Systems, Inc. is a Korean American-owned trucking company transporting freight from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. In July 2011, Song was hired as a port truck driver for the company. Over the next three years, he worked a grueling schedule that included 14 to 16 hours a day, six days a week, without meal or rest breaks. He drove a company-owned truck under JST’s directions and control while being misclassified as an independent contractor. In addition to unlawful deductions of over $1,000 per week from his paycheck, Song was forced to pay all gasoline and auto repair expenses for the truck out of his own pocket. Despite toiling over 70 hours a week, Song was driven to homelessness and was forced to live out of his truck.
In February 2016, Song filed an administrative wage claim against JST Systems, Inc. with the California Labor Commissioner’s office without the assistance of an attorney or representative. Shortly after receiving notice of the wage claim, JST Systems, Inc. belatedly sued Song for breach of contract, alleging that he owed the company $90,000 during his employment which he failed to pay after his resignation in June 2014.
“I went to work for JST to work hard and better my life, but I ended up being worse off,” said Song. “I agreed to whatever conditions they imposed on me believing that it is all according to the law. When I realized what JST did to me was unlawful, I tried to get the money that I earned, and instead of changing their practice, JST retaliated with a lawsuit against me.” Song was left to defend himself without the assistance of an attorney. The economic hardship and extreme stress led to devastating consequences on his health. Earlier this year, Song suffered multiple strokes which left his upper body partly paralyzed. Consequently, he was unable to work for several months.
“Employee misclassification is rampant within the port truck industry and this practice must be challenged. Nearly two-thirds of all port truck drivers nationally are misclassified as independent contractors, resulting in an impoverished, mostly immigrant workforce,” said Paul S. Chan, managing principal at Bird Marella.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Song is not a unique case. We see an increasing number of workers filing legitimate wage claims against their employers only to be met with unlawful and retaliatory lawsuits,” said Kat K. Choi, staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA. “When this happens, many immigrant workers have neither the resources or knowledge to defend themselves in court against trumped up claims tied to baseless lawsuits.” In May, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA and its pro bono counsel from Bird Marella took on Song’s case, with assistance from attorneys in the Los Angeles Incubator Consortium.
“Contrary to what inexperienced business owners may believe – ‘we will have him sign a paper saying he is not an employee, so we don’t need to pay him according to the law’ – the legal classification question is a lot more nuanced. Employee misclassification can lead to grave financial consequences to those employers in terms of unpaid wages as well as hefty penalties,” said Patricia Jun, an associate at Bird Marella.
Port truck drivers are the backbone of a $450 billion industry in Southern California. In July, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA, along with Wage Justice Center, settled a $5 million class action wage and hour settlement on behalf of 400 Latino and Korean immigrants against a port trucking company that employed a similar misclassification scheme.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles (Advancing Justice-LA) is the nation’s largest legal and civil rights organization for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (NHPI). Through direct services, impact litigation, policy advocacy, leadership development, and capacity building, Advancing Justice-LA focuses on the most vulnerable members of Asian American and NHPI communities while also building a strong voice for civil rights and social justice.