Fifth District affirms Madison County ruling on Subway employee's lawsuit over pay

Bethany Krajelis Jul. 26, 2012, 10:19am


A woman who worked at a sandwich shop managed by her husband, but never received a paycheck should be compensated for her labor, a panel of the Fifth District held in an unpublished order released this week.

The issue stems from a lawsuit Ragini Patel filed in Madison County Circuit Court against a Subway franchise owned by Twinkle Enterprises Inc. and her husband's brother-in-law, Hiren Patel, who presided over Twinkle.

In 1998, Ragini Patel and her husband, Nitin, moved from India to the St. Louis area, where Nitin's sister, Henna, and her husband, Hiren, lived. All four lived under the same roof in a residence owned by Hiren.

Shortly after their arrival, Ragini and Nitin started working at a Subway shop owned by Hiren. A few weeks later, Ragini claims she asked her husband if she was going to receive a paycheck and he told her not to worry about it because Hiren would take care of it.

During a bench trial before Madison County Associate Judge Tom Chapman, Ragini testified that she asked her husband about getting paid on several more occasions, to which he gave her the same response.

She said she continued to work, assuming she would eventually get paid, and that her husband, consistent with their customs, told her not to bring up the topic with Hiren.

After taking a few months off following her daughter's birth in 1999, Ragini returned to work and once again raised the topic of pay with her husband.

"Well, I said, well, I'm starting work again. Is Henry [Hiren] going to pay me? I'm going to get my paycheck?" she testified. "He said yes, he will take care of everything. You just shut your mouth."

Ragini said she continued to work, believing that she would get paid. She eventually filed the lawsuit.

Ragini's husband, Nitin, testified at the bench trial in the case that he never approached his brother-in-law about getting his wife's paycheck because it was included on his check, which as a matter of course, he endorsed to Hiren, who took care of the family's expenses.

Hiren admitted in his testimony that Ragini never received a paycheck, but didn't know what kind of agreement Ragini and Nitin had come to regarding her work at the Subway shop.

Following trial and after he determined Ragini was an employee who never got paid for her work, Chapman entered a judgment in Ragini's favor. After considering the defendants' post-trial motions, Chapman found that Ragini had proved there was an implied contract to pay her and affirmed his judgment.

The defendants appealed to the Fifth District, where they argued that "they could have accepted a finding based on the equity, awarding the amount plaintiff could have saved as a fast-food worker."

In the unpublished order, Justice Richard Goldenhersh wrote that "equitable remedies are not available when remedies at law control" and "based on the record, plaintiff had several avenues for remedy at law."

The defendants also argued on appeal that the lower court was wrong to determine there was an implied contract. The Fifth District, however, didn't buy that argument.

"Despite the lack of a written contract, the record supports compensation for plaintiff," Goldenhersh wrote, pointing to both the doctrine of promissory estoppel and the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act.

In order to support a claim for promissory estoppel, Goldenhersh wrote that Ragini needed to prove the following four elements: 1) that the defendants made an unambiguous promise to her, 2) that she relied on that promise, 3) that her reliance was expected and foreseeable by defendants and 4) that she relied on the promise to her detriment.

He said Ragini proved these elements and that the defense "confuses their apparent belief that plaintiff would never have the wherewithal to enforce payment with the elements of lack of ambiguity and foreseeable expectancy."

"Plaintiff testified that Nitin, who happened to be a manager, promised her that she would be paid. Accepting plaintiff's testimony, this promise of compensation was unambiguous," Goldenhersh wrote. "Unlike unsuccessful claims of promissory estoppel, the terms of the promise are simple and unambiguous- she would get paid for her work."

The record, Goldenhersh wrote, also supports awarding Ragini compensation under the state's Wage Payment and Collection Act, which provides "both a floor for payment of labor services and an avenue for employees to seek complete payment for earned compensation."

In addition, the appellate panel determined that Nitan's testimony that his wife's paycheck was included on his was "unsubstantiated" and that Hiren's assertion he was unaware of any agreement reached by Ragini and Nitin contradicts Nitan's testimony and "seems incredible."

Not awarding Ragini compensation for her labor "would be in complete derogation of the terms and strong public policy of the act," Goldenhersh wrote.

Justices James Donovan and James Wexstten concurred with Goldenhersh in the unpublished order.

The case is Ragini Patel v. Twinkle Enterprises Inc. and Hiran Patel, 2012 IL App (5th) 110022-U.

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