Immigration rights, wage dispute, clash at Martha’s Vineyard home

Mr. Sisco and Ms. Storm renovated the 93 South Water Street home after purchasing the property for $5.25 million in 2009. — Photo by Steve Myrick

With the support of a Boston-area immigrant rights organization, four Brazilian men who live and work on Martha’s Vineyard have filed a lawsuit against a wealthy Edgartown couple seeking back wages and overtime. They claim the homeowners failed to pay for work the men did on a total renovation of a South Water Street house valued at almost $6 million.

Collectively, the men claim that homeowners Gene Sisco and Joyce Steves Storm owe a total of $110,000 in back wages. The highest single amount owed is $47,000, according to federal court documents.

Mr. Sisco and Ms. Storm dispute the allegations in the lawsuit. In a conversation with The Times, Mr. Sisco said the workers were paid properly and fully.

Construction has been one of the pillars of the Martha’s Vineyard economy. Wage and payment disputes are not uncommon on projects that may cost millions of dollars and take several years.

An influx over the past 20 years of foreign workers, mostly from Brazil, some of them without legal work status or proper visas, has added a new dimension to the Island’s labor force and to the relations between customers and workers. Because some of the workers do not speak English and are not legal workers, they may be hesitant to demand the protections employers are required to provide employees, representatives of the larger Brazilian community say.

“This is not just your typical case,” said attorney Angela Wessels, a Brookline attorney with experience litigating wage and hours disputes. She represents the four men in the lawsuit. “These guys were working incredibly long hours. There’s just no doubt that these are vulnerable men. It’s easy to take advantage of them. They need work, and they keep working hoping to get paid.”

The immigration status of the construction workers is not relevant in a wage dispute, according to Ms. Wessels.

“Under Massachusetts law, employers are responsible for paying wages,” Ms. Wessels said. “It’s not a defense to say they’re here without proper documentation. That evidence is not even admissible in court.”

She told The Times she does not know and has not asked about her clients’ immigration status.

In a conversation with each of the workers, The Times asked each whether he is in the country legally. Each declined to comment, and each declined to be photographed.

In a brief phone interview, Mr. Sisco denied that the workers had been exploited because of their residency status.

“That’s completely untrue,” Mr. Sisco said. “Ask each of them how much they were paid before you come to any conclusions about the word exploited.”

Mr. Sisco declined to provide information about how much the men were paid.

The couple’s attorney, Geoffrey McCullough, senior counsel in the Boston law firm Murphy, Hesse, Toomey and Lehane, LLP, denied the workers’ allegations.

“The plaintiffs’ allegations of exploitation and non-payment are baseless and without any factual or legal merit,” Mr. McCullough wrote in a statement emailed to The Times.

Renovation project

Mr. Sisco and Ms. Storm are principals in JSS Advisors LLC of New York City, which they describe on the company web site as an “industry leader in large retail and mixed-use real estate development.” The web site says JSS Advisors is currently developing more than four million square feet of projects along the East Coast. It lists 45 clients, many of them familiar corporate names, in China, Italy, France, Canada, and the United States.

The couple has owned houses in Edgartown since 1997, first on School Street and then Pease Point Way, according to assessors’ records.

In 2009, they bought the house at 93 South Water Street for $5.25 million. The two-story, 4,700-square-foot home is on nearly a half-acre of land and has expansive views of Edgartown Harbor.

The couple soon began a complete renovation of the property interior, exterior, and grounds.

According to a motion they filed asking that the lawsuit be dismissed, Mr. Sisco and Ms. Storm retained Abraham Radi, an Iranian-born construction supervisor, to serve as general contractor for the project. The lawsuit describes him as an independent contractor with control over the renovation work.

But, according to Edgartown building department records, Mr. Sisco was named as the general contractor on the building permit.

In the spring of 2010, Mr. Radi returned to Iran, according to the construction workers. They say Mr. Sisco then took over day-to-day, hands-on supervision of the construction project.

Court case

Ms. Wessels said she first tried to negotiate with Mr. Sisco and Ms. Storm. “Initially, I just wrote them a letter, demanding payment,” Ms. Wessels said. “Their initial response was, we don’t know who these people are, we’ve never heard of them. Then they said we know who some of them are, but we don’t owe them any money. Then their response was, they’re independent contractors.”

She then filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s fair labor and business practices division. In a letter to Ms. Wessels, the attorney general’s office said it carefully looked into the complaint and determined the legal remedy was in court. The letter authorized her to file a civil lawsuit.

Ms. Wessels filed suit in Dukes County Superior Court on March 4, against Mr. Sisco, Ms. Storm, and their company, JSS Advisors.

In the case of Waldemar DePaula, one of the workers, the lawsuit alleges that from November 18, 2009, until April 15, 2010, he was paid only three times, a total of $5,000 for 1,846 hours worked.

The lawsuit says from April 25 to September 24, he was paid for a 40-hour work week, but was not paid any overtime wages, though he frequently worked 42 to 73 hours per week.

The lawsuit alleges similar failure to pay wages and overtime, in differing amounts, to all four men.

The lawsuit contends that the construction workers were employees, not independent contractors. According to court documents, paychecks written to the men were written by the homeowners and came from their personal bank accounts, as well as from accounts controled by their company, JSS Advisors.

Mr. Mcullough, the attorney for Mr. Sisco and Ms. Storm, asked the Dukes County Superior Court to remove the case to the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. His motion was granted, and the case now sits in federal court, awaiting a ruling on Mr. McCullough’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

In a memorandum supporting his motion to dismiss, Mr. McCullough wrote that the four men failed to include Mr. Radi in the lawsuit.

“At times, when Mr. Sisco and [Ms. Storm] paid Mr. Radi, it was their understanding that he was being compensated for himself and his laborers,” Mr. McCullough wrote in the memorandum. The legal document contends Mr. Radi and the four men were independent contractors, not employees. Mr. McCullough argues that Mr. Radi is necessary to the case, and without him, the case should be dismissed.

The attorney also asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on grounds that the couple owned the residential property individually, and their company, JSS Advisors, never held any ownership interest in the South Water Street home.

Ms. Wessels said moving the case to federal court will slow down the legal process, perhaps for years, because the federal court generally takes much longer to try a case. She said moving a case to federal court is a common legal maneuver which puts pressure on people of modest means to settle or abandon their case. She sought publicity about the lawsuit in an attempt resolve the dispute, perhaps with an earlier settlement.

Mr. McCullough declined comment when asked whether removing the case to federal court was part of a strategy to delay the case.

Work and wages

Like many Brazilians on Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. DePaula came to the United States looking for work. The lure of much better wages than he could earn in Brazil enticed him to leave his wife and four children behind. He joined acquaintances on Martha’s Vineyard, got work, and sent some of his wages back to Brazil to his family.

Neat, soft spoken, and polite, Mr. DePaula said he has been in the United States for six years and has never had a dispute about wages on other jobs. He said he lives in an apartment he rents in a Vineyard Haven house. Five other men live in the same house.

In the lawsuit against Mr. Sisco and Ms. Storm, Mr. DePaula alleges the couple owes him $47,925 in wages and overtime.

A Times reporter asked him why he kept working if he was not being paid. “He was following the instruction from the person who was in charge,” Mr. DePaula said through a translator. “They promised the check was going to come, but it never showed up. The person who was in charge said if you stop work, he would not pay him what he was owed, but if he continues work, he will pay him.”

Another worker, Edinaldo Alves, alleges that Mr. Sisco and Ms. Storm owe him $41,169. Mr. Alves said he came to the United States from Brazil 10 years ago and has never had a problem with wages before. But, he says he has always felt pressure on the job. He works for cash and has never benefited from workers compensation insurance, unemployment insurance, or Social Security, benefits required by state and federal laws. When he was injured on a previous job, he could not work and did not get paid. He and the other men say they know of several workers who were fired when they questioned pay or working conditions.

Mr. Alves said when he learned he had the right to seek back wages in court, he was hopeful. “It’s scary, yes,” Mr. Alves said through an interpreter. “But, because he worked, it’s fair that they pay for the labor. That encouraged him to go to court.”

The two other complainants in the lawsuit are Rogerio Cardoso, who claims the couple owes him $16,350, and Joao Filho, who says he is owed $5,212.

Rights fights

Diego Low, an immigration rights advocate, says wage disputes like the one brought by the four local construction workers are more and more common.

“Unfortunately, we’re facing rampant non-payment of workers,” Mr. Low said. “It got worse in construction with the crisis in housing. Some of that is because companies are closing down; they’re trying to struggle to make it.”

Mr. Low is the director of the MetroWest Immigrant Worker Center. He says the organization handles hundreds of complaints about unpaid wages. By word of mouth, the four Vineyard construction workers learned of the center and called asking for help. Mr. Low advised them to pursue the matter in court, after attempts to negotiate a settlement privately.

“One of the things that is pushing us to make this public is that it’s hard for me to accept that their lives have to be on hold while they try to recover their hourly wages, while people of means can let this play out over years and years in court,” Mr. Low said. “Time is on the employer’s side. If they just hunker down they will not have to pay, or they can reduce the amount of their liability.”

He said the long delays are especially disturbing in the case of Mr. DePaula, who suffers from serious heart disease. He requires expensive medications and is too sick to work.

“The vulnerability the workers have, not just because of their status, but because of language, because they don’t have connections in the community to know how to pursue their rights, not understanding the legal system — all of these things come together to make it hard for them to pursue their rights,” Mr. Low said. “That’s something that makes them attractive workers. They’re docile, they’re compliant. They’re much less likely to pursue their rights assertively. That’s one of the reasons why it is so important to see that they are able to pursue justice.”