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Xiao v. Feast Buffet, Inc

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

May 15, 2019

PENGBAO XIAO, et al., Plaintiffs,



         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Feast Buffet Inc.'s partial Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. #39. Plaintiffs Mingfeng Cai, Jinglin Chen, Yue Li, Maohong Lin, Xiangnan Liu, Zhengri Song, Yujie Wang, Pengbo Xiao, Lihong Xu, and Xu Zhao (collectively “Plaintiffs”) oppose. Dkt. #44. Defendant Feast Buffet has requested oral argument, but the Court does not feel that oral argument is necessary. Having reviewed the motion, Plaintiffs' response, Defendant's reply, and all documents submitted in support thereof, the Court GRANTS IN PART Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Defendant Feast Buffet, Inc. (“Feast Buffet”) is a Chinese restaurant located in Renton, Washington. The restaurant's management completes its own bookkeeping and hires Chinese-speaking waitstaff that can communicate with Feast Buffet's owners and managers, who primarily speak Chinese. Dkt. #44-1, Ex. B, Li Dep. 12:4-25. To find Chinese-speaking waitstaff to hire, Feast Buffet's owners relied on employment agencies to seek out potential employees outside the Renton, Washington area. Dkt. #41, Li Decl. ¶3. Feast Buffet hired Plaintiffs, most of whom relocated to Washington from states such as California or Texas. See, e.g., Dkt. #40-1, Ex. A, Cai Dep. 21:20-23; Ex. B, Chen Dep. 15:19-20; Ex. D, Liu Dep. 30:18-25; Ex. E, Song Dep. 35:10.

         Feast Buffet offered Plaintiffs at least $3, 500 per month in wages and tips, plus free meals and free lodging. Dkt. #41, Li Decl., ¶4. During the interview process, Feast Buffet agreed to compensate at least two plaintiffs for travel costs to relocate to Renton. Id., ¶9. Feast Buffet did not pay its waitstaff hourly wages or overtime compensation-Plaintiffs' income came exclusively from tips. See, e.g., Dkt. #40, Ex. B, Chen Dep. 26:8-12, 37:1-38:16; Ex. D, Liu Dep. 55:5-13. To receive their bi-weekly paychecks, employees were required by Feast Buffet to bring the cash they earned from tips to the front counter and exchange the cash for a paycheck. See id.

         In addition to completing its own bookkeeping, Feast Buffet relied minimally on written contracts, rules or guidelines to outline the employer-employee relationship. Dkt. #44-1, Ex. J, Def. Interrog. No. 10 at 49. Feast Buffet manager Xiaoling Jiang described his past practice of trashing employees' timecards that recorded the number of hours that waitstaff worked. Dkt. #44-1, Ex. B, Jiang Dep. 44:15-45:17, 57:12-22. To the extent that Plaintiffs signed any paperwork, Plaintiffs claim they were not sure what they signed, nor the purpose of their signatures. Dkt. #40-1, Ex. D, Liu Dep. 31:17-23; Ex. G, Xu Dep. 46:6-10.

         Feast Buffet claims that the restaurant's management genuinely believed that it fully and fairly compensated Plaintiffs and did not willfully violate FLSA wage requirements. Dkt. #41, Li Decl., ¶ 5, 6. Dequn Li, one of Feast Buffet's owners and managers, states that Plaintiffs “seemed satisfied with their substantial compensation, ” noting that none complained about pay, minimum wages, overtime pay or any pay practice. Id. Likewise, he claims that management never received any complaints, warnings or notices during Plaintiffs' employment that Feast Buffet was not complying with FLSA wage requirements. Id.

         Plaintiffs describe the restaurant's management as enforcing a zero-tolerance policy against complaining about wages, overtime, or rest breaks, wherein waitstaff knew that breaking their silence would result in immediate firing. See, e.g., Dkt. #44-1, Ex. C, Cai Dep. 82:9-23. Plaintiff Zhengri Song claimed that the number of waiters fired for complaining numbered in the teens, and that waitstaff had no way to make a complaint anonymously. Id., Ex. G, Song Dep. 50:15-25.

         Most of Plaintiffs state that they remained silent on wage issues out of fear of Feast Buffet firing them. See, e.g., Dkt. #44-2, Chen Decl. ¶5; Dkt. #44-4, Li Decl. ¶5. However, plaintiff Pengbo Xiao claims that (s)he complained once about overtime work and once about time off. Id. at Ex. H, Xiao Dep. 41:23-25, 42:1-21. Similarly, Mingfeng Cai complained about working too late into the night. Id. at Ex. A, Cai Dep. 15:12-25, 16:1-13. Plaintiffs also allege an incident in which a Chinese-speaking customer asked a waiter if Feast Buffet paid them hourly wages or overtime. When the waiter replied that Feast Buffet only paid them tips, the customer left a tip of twenty-five dollars. Dkt. #40-1, Ex. E, Song Dep. 41:13-25. Plaintiffs claim that Feast Buffet's management brought up this incident in a meeting that night and fired the waiter involved. Id. See also Dkt. #44-5, Cai Decl. ¶10; Dkt. #44-3, Xu Decl. ¶5. In addition to fear of losing their jobs at Feast Buffet, Plaintiffs also claim that because managers at Feast Buffet knew other restaurant managers in the Renton, Washington area, they worried that complaining to Feast Buffet management would hurt them if they later tried to find work at another Renton restaurant. Dkt. #44, Ex. I, Zhao Dep. 29:5-8.


         A. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate where “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). Material facts are those which might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. In ruling on summary judgment, a court does not weigh evidence to determine the truth of the matter, but “only determine[s] whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Crane v. Conoco, Inc., 41 F.3d 547, 549 (9th Cir. 1994) (citing Federal Deposit Ins. Corp. v. O'Melveny & Meyers, 969 F.2d 744, 747 (9th Cir. 1992)).

         On a motion for summary judgment, the court views the evidence and draws inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255; Sullivan v. U.S. Dep't of the Navy, 365 F.3d 827, 832 (9th Cir. 2004). The Court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. See O'Melveny & Meyers, 969 F.2d at 747, rev'd on other grounds, 512 U.S. 79 (1994). However, the nonmoving party must make a “sufficient showing on an essential element of her case with respect to which she has the burden of proof” to survive summary judgment. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

         B. ...

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