Entrepreneur Lyjha Wilton took advantage of a pair of Mexican immigrants and their U.S.-born daughter, using the immigrants’ undocumented status as a lever to take over La Casa, a popular South Wedge eatery that succeeded largely by dint of their labor, the trio maintains in a lawsuit.
Filed last week in U.S. District Court in Rochester, the court action accuses Wilton of fraud and labor law violations.
A real estate developer and owner of Boulder Coffee Co. Inc., Wilton is praised by some as a savior of the city’s South Wedge neighborhood and reviled by others as an impossibly bad landlord.
Maria Bocanegra, Omar Ramos and their daughter Leila Bocanegra cast Wilton as a deceiver who “strung them along,” inducing them to invest more than $49,000 in La Casa and put in thousands of hours of free labor at the restaurant because of a never-fulfilled promise to turn over the restaurant to them.
Offering the undocumented immigrants “a chance at the American Dream,” Wilton in the end manipulated and exploited them, claimed the plaintiffs’ attorney, David Irving, a lawyer in the Rochester office of the Worker Justice Center of New York Inc., in a written statement.
Wilton and Joseph Taddeo Jr., an attorney mentioned in the court filing as the recipient of a transfer of restaurant cash arranged by Wilton, did not respond to requests for comment. Taddeo is not a target of the action.
According to the lawsuit, Wilton, seemingly impressed by the popularity and high-quality fare of a Mexican food stand Ramos and Maria Bocanegra were running in quarters rented from him, approached the couple with a proposition: Wilton would help them develop a full-service Mexican restaurant in an Alexander Street house he owned near Boulder Coffee’s flagship location.
Wilton said he would start out as the new restaurant’s legal owner, the complaint claims. But he told the couple he was ultimately interested only in renting the property and promised to put the restaurant in the name of Leila Bocanegra, then 18 years old, as soon as she turned 21, making the family full owners of the eatery, the court documents state.
In an interview, Irving declined to say whether the terms the lawsuit describes were memorialized in a written contract. In the court complaint, he cites equitable estoppel, a legal principle under which parties can be held to terms of a verbal understanding.
Wilton invested $60,000 to $80,000 in the restaurant venture, while the Bocanegras and Ramos supplemented their investment of more than $49,000 by putting in more than 7,000 hours of what turned out to be free labor, the lawsuit alleges.
According to the filing, Maria Bocanegra and Ramos started working full-time at the restaurant in December 2012, several months before it opened. At first they designed and set up kitchen and dining areas, built fixtures, developed a menu based in part on family recipes and decorated the eatery. After La Casa opened, they ran the restaurant for several months.
Ramos and Maria Bocanegra, for example, controlled La Casa’s checking account and were authorized to charge items to the restaurant’s credit card. The restaurant’s Internet, cable television and telephone contract were in Ramos’ name. Ramos and Maria Bocanegra had administrator access to the restaurant’s computer system and clocked restaurant workers in and out, the filing states.
When the South Wedge restaurant opened for business in February 2013, the Bocanegras and Ramos moved into an apartment above it. Wilton charged the trio $3,000 a month in combined rent, the complaint states.
The brief describes legal underpinnings of the rental as involving separate companies controlled by Wilton. A company called 93 Alexander St. Inc., which does business as La Casa, paid the monthly rental fee to Wilton, who signed a lease on the building as both tenant and landlord.
For much of 2013, Maria Bocanegra and Ramos were largely responsible for the restaurant’s day-to-day management, their complaint alleges.
But the deal for the restaurant initially to be run as a joint venture but be fully transferred to Leila Bocanegra on her 21st birthday went awry in July 2013 when Maria Bocanegra and Ramos were detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
The couple still is living in this area, Irving said. He declined to comment further on their status.
After the detention, Wilton took steps to squeeze out the Bocanegras and Ramos, limiting their hours and taking control of the managerial duties. In July, Wilton transferred $40,000 out of La Casa’s business account, sending $25,000 to an account under his control, $10,000 to Taddeo and $5,000 for the restaurant’s monthly rental, upping the previously agreed rental cost by $2,000, the court complaint states.
Ramos and the Bocanegras bowed out of the restaurant in November 2013. By that time, Wilton had limited their duties to kitchen work and told them to teach other staffers how to do their management chores, the court filing states.
The complaint alleges that Wilton—guilty of “common law fraud”—deliberately misled the couple.
The three-year delay Wilton imposed before he would make Leila Bocanegra an owner was not legally necessary. In questions of contracts or ownership, New York law defines 18-year-olds as adults, Irving said in an interview.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages on two counts:
- As an alleged employer of the Bocanegras and Ramos, Wilton owes them wages, including overtime for the thousands of unpaid hours they worked, plus extra damages; and
- Under terms of the deal proposed, which would have given the trio an ownership stake in La Casa, he owes them at least a cut of the restaurant’s profits.
Since its launch last year, La Casa has had gross revenues exceeding $500,000 and racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits, the court complaint maintains.
As compensation for Wilton’s alleged duplicity, the trio also seeks unspecified punitive damages.
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