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June 29, 2020

Caddy Class Action Still in Play With New Retaliation Claim

A NYS federal judge recently ruled in Rodriguez v. National Golf Links of America et al. that a former caddy who sued a golf club under the wage laws could bring a retaliation claim after a club member filed a well-grounded suit against him for repayment of a loan.

In December 2019, Andrew Rodriguez, a former caddy at the exclusive National Golf Links of America course in Southampton, New York, filed a class action in federal court alleging that the National failed to pay caddies for all time worked, including overtime. The suit alleges Rodriguez and other caddies routinely worked over 65 hours per week and were regularly assigned duties such as cleaning locker rooms and washing golf carts for which they weren’t paid.

Shortly after his case was filed, a club member who isn’t a defendant in the wage case contacted Rodriguez to pressure him to end his class-action wage suit against the club. The member then continued to aggressively attempt to push Rodriguez into a settlement and even offered to pay his accrued legal fees to facilitate ending the case. Rodriguez, however, declined to dismiss his case against the club.

In mid-March 2020, after his efforts to persuade Rodriguez failed, the member filed a suit against Rodriguez seeking repayment of a $5,000 loan he made to Rodriguez while he was a caddy. The member alleged, and Rodriguez doesn’t dispute, that he loaned Rodriguez $5,000 so Rodriguez could pay the medical expenses of a fellow caddy whom he had assaulted. The member further alleged Rodriguez didn’t pay for the medical expenses, but instead kept the loan money for himself.

Following the filing of the member’s suit against him to recover the loan amount, Rodriguez filed a motion in his wage case to add a claim of retaliation against the club. It has long been the law that the filing of a baseless claim against a former employee by a defendant in a wage case constitutes unlawful retaliation. In seeking to add his retaliation claim, however, Rodriguez didn’t allege that the loan repayment case brought by the member was baseless. Rather, Rodriguez asserted that even though the member’s case had a legitimate basis, the filing was still unlawful because its intended purpose was to retaliate against him on behalf of the club for bringing his wage case in federal court.

The court emphasized at the outset of its analysis that whether a former employee can claim retaliation because they have been sued in a “well-founded lawsuit” is an open question in the NYS federal courts because there’s no controlling guidance from the appellate level. The court also recognized that an important consideration to be weighed in deciding whether to allow a plaintiff to bring a retaliation claim is the other party’s First Amendment right to seek access to the courts, as recognized by the US Supreme Court.

The court noted that, in the retaliation context, courts have looked beyond the First Amendment right to file in court to assess not only the nature of the claim, but also the motivation for filing it. The court cited another recent Eastern District case where the judge held that whether a plaintiff can proceed with a retaliation claim depends on whether the plaintiff alleged the claim was either baseless or wouldn’t have been pursued absent a retaliatory motive.

The court found the reasoning in that case to be persuasive and ruled that Rodriguez could move forward with his retaliation claim and attempt to prove that, notwithstanding the valid underlying basis for the loan repayment claim, the member filed it solely to retaliate against Rodriguez for suing the club.

The court also noted an important distinction in the Rodriguez case. Unlike a typical retaliation case where an employer files suit against a former employee after being sued, the alleged retaliatory claim in the Rodriguez case was brought by a third-party club member and not the club itself. The court found that although the loan repayment suit could still be retaliatory because Rodriguez alleged the member brought it “on behalf of the club,” the member’s First Amendment right to go to court wasn’t implicated because allowing the retaliation claim to proceed against the club wouldn’t affect him directly.

With the retaliation claim in play, Rodriguez will attempt to gather evidence to show the loan repayment suit was in fact brought by the member on behalf of the club and that it was motivated by an intent to retaliate against him for filing the wage suit.

If you have any questions regarding the content of this alert, please contact Dan Blake, partner, at dblake@barclaydamon.com or another member of the firm’s Labor & Employment Practice Area.

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