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Judge: Former Kellys owners broke wage law

Kellys Pub on Central in Nob Hill in 2014. The owners of the bar and restaurant from 2013 to 2016 just lost a lawsuit about the wages it paid a group of servers there. The current owners and operators of Kellys were not connected to the legal action. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The former owners of a popular Nob Hill bar and restaurant violated Albuquerque’s minimum wage law, costing employees thousands of dollars in lost wages, according to a recent District Court decision.

Judge Benjamin Chavez of the 2nd Judicial District Court last week released an order formalizing a verbal decision saying that Dennis and Janice Bonfantine, the former owners of Kellys Brew Pub, failed to follow a city ordinance approved by voters in 2012, and owe employees a significant chunk of money.

“Every worker deserves to be paid every dollar they work for,” said Stephanie Welch, the supervising attorney for workers’ rights for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which represented the plaintiffs in the case, along with Shane Youtz and James Montalbano of Youtz & Valdez, P.C.

While the legal battle over the wages for servers at the restaurant and brewery began with a class-action lawsuit filed in 2016, the underlying issues began years before the suit.

In 2012, Albuquerque voters approved an ordinance that raised the minimum wage in the city. For tipped employees, the minimum wage rose to $5.25 by 2015, plus tips, up from $2.13 for servers before the ordinance passed, according to the suit.

After the ordinance went into effect, the Bonfantines illegally forced employees to pay for the minimum wage increase by turning $3 per hour over to the restaurant owners from their tips from 2013 until 2016, Welch said.

In 2016, Kellys Brew Pub was sold to Santa Fe Dining, which is not named in the suit.

Dennis Bonfantine could not be reached for comment. Eric Burris, the attorney who represented the defendants during a May court date, declined to comment.

Kelsi Sharp, who worked at the restaurant for a few months in 2016, said she complained to other servers and management about the policy, saying it hurt low-wage workers at the expense of wealthy business owners.

“They’re taking money away from college students,” Sharp said.

Bianca Garcia, who worked at Kellys for about a year beginning in the summer of 2014, said she lost around $5,000 during that time because of the policy.

“The way Kellys was run was super laid-back and unprofessional,” she said.

Garcia said she got more and more frustrated during her year at the restaurant, particularly during slow times of year when the loss of tips was harder to ignore. After she left the restaurant, Garcia said, a relative helped her connect with the poverty law center. She was able to reach out to current and former employees who had experienced the same issues. In April 2016, the suit was filed on behalf of around 150 servers who had worked at the restaurant during the three-year period.

In response to the lawsuit, the Bonfantines challenged the minimum wage law in 2017, arguing that it was invalid because only a summary of the ordinance appeared on the ballot, and it contained a typographical error, according to Journal reports. A judge rejected the challenge in June of that year, allowing the lawsuit to move forward.

Albuquerque’s minimum wage ordinance requires employers who fail to pay employees the full wage to pay triple the wages that were withheld, as well as attorneys’ fees. Welch called the decision a big win for the law.

“The ruling tells workers that the minimum wage law has teeth,” Welch said. “It really protects their rights.”

Welch said she did not know whether the defendants would appeal the case. A trial to determine the exact amount of money the plaintiffs are entitled to is set for October. Welch said the total could exceed $1 million.

“It’s going to be a lot of money,” she said.