Salary dispute may stall liquor license sale

Councilman says he wants part of proceeds set aside to pay shortchanged employees of closed restaurant.

By: Jennifer Potash
   A liquor license sale from a defunct Witherspoon Street restaurant could be held up over allegations the former owner did not pay employees before shuttering the business last year.
   The Princeton Borough Council is expected to discuss tonight a transfer of the license to DVM Holdings Inc., whose principal is Jack Morrison of Cleveland Lane, owner of the Nassau Street Seafood & Produce Co. and the Blue Point Grill on Nassau Street.
   The council deferred discussion of the license Wednesday following the advice of Borough Attorney Michael J. Herbert.
   The license would be conveyed to DVM by the current license holder, Regato Holdings Inc., the partnership of the former Les Copains on Witherspoon Street.
   Princeton Borough Councilman Roger Martindell wants the Borough Council to put $15,000 of the sale proceeds into an escrow fund to cover claims from the restaurant’s former workers. The price of the liquor license is estimated at $500,000, Mr. Martindell said.
   "The Borough Council has a moral obligation not to approve the transfer until the hourly-wage workers who live in Princeton are first paid, regardless of the claims of Regato Holdings’ other creditors," Mr. Martindell said.
   The liquor license sale brings to light a significant problem in Princeton’s economy — the illegal withholding of wages owed to service workers, said Mr. Martindell, who is an attorney.
   "This problem is particularly acute in the restaurant and landscape businesses and particularly among Latino employees," he said.
   Many of these workers lack fluency in English and don’t understand their legal rights or the amount sought may not justify the expense of a lawsuit, Mr. Martindell said. Also, the failed businesses may have larger outstanding obligations such as delinquent taxes and therefore employees are last among creditors for repayment, Mr. Martindell said.
   "The result can be disastrous for a family living in Princeton at the subsistence level who depends on the weekly paycheck to survive," Mr. Martindell said.
   Mr. Martindell said he formerly represented three of the Les Copains workers whose paychecks bounced or were not paid overtime wages. The employees are now represented by another attorney.
   One former employee, Jose Marroquin, who earned between $9.75 and $11 per hour, is owed more than $2,800, Mr. Martindell said, and two other employees received payroll checks that bounced.
   After getting in touch with one of Regato’s principles, Michael Lauren, Mr. Martindell said the owner was willing to pay the employees’ claims if any money was left over after payments to the Internal Revenue Service and other lenders were settled.
   David Oakley, the attorney for the three former Les Copains employees, said he took the case about two weeks ago and is attempting to work out matters with Regato Holdings. Another issue is trying to find other former employees with claims for unpaid wages, Mr. Oakley said.
   Dan Murray, who represents Mr. Lauren, said efforts are under way to resolve the matter.
   Ultimately, Mr. Martindell wants the borough to create a program to prosecute in municipal court local employers who fail to pay wages to hourly workers.
   State law authorizes such prosecutions, but local prosecutors rarely do so because unpaid workers tend not to seek the help, Mr. Martindell said.
   The Human Services Department, a joint agency that provides for the social service and welfare needs of borough and township residents, could be a resource by informing workers of their rights and helping translate the complaints, Mr. Martindell said.
   To avoid a conflict of interest, Mr. Martindell said he will not vote on the transfer of the liquor license. The councilman said his comments should not be construed to suggest that DVM Holdings was in any way complicit in Regato’s failure to pay its employees.
   Mr. Morrison did not return calls seeking comment about his plans for the liquor license.