MANHATTAN (CN) - A grassroots immigrant-rights group barged into a Bronx restaurant and played "off-key" trombones and clarinets to trumpet its false allegations that the restaurant owner stiffed minority employees on pay, the owner claims in court.
"This is a case of vigilante justice gone wrong," Manuel Antonio Liberato, who owns Liberato Restaurant in the Bronx, claims in the lawsuit in New York County Supreme Court. "The defendants, in their crusade against perceived wage theft and under the guise of the First Amendment, have decided to take justice in their own hands rather than leave it to the courts and the regulatory authorities, where it belongs."
Liberato, M.L. Restaurant Corp. and San Jose Enterprises sued the Laundry Workers Center United, which was founded in 2011 "to bring a voice to immigrant and illegal workers regarding their living and working conditions."
Liberato claims the organization "has become a bully organization that attempts to pummel their victims into submission by disregarding the rule of law and implementing protest tactics that have been struck down across the United States."
On April 19, the organization, along with about 100 supporters and a "motley crew of musicians banging drums" created the "Rude Mechanical Orchestra" by filing into plaintiff's restaurant and refusing to leave.
They entered in two waves, according to the complaint. The first was comprised of 12 protesters, who entered the dining room, sat down and toasted their waters. Then dozens of other protesters stormed in, led by the "Rude Mechanical Orchestra," which included several drummers, a trombone player and several clarinets, playing "deafening, off-key and disruptive noise specifically and intentionally designed to torment patrons and create an unpleasant environment, so as to deter patrons from returning and damaging plaintiff's business."
Defendant Virgilio Oscar Aran, the organization's founder, then charged in with a placard in hand "demanding justice and peace now," as his followers began chanting "protest rhetoric and the group took over the main entrance and serving areas of the restaurant," according to the complaint.
The Rude Mechanicals refused to leave, "instead choosing to create a spectacle so as to prevent patrons from eating their meals in pace," according to the lawsuit. They blocked the entrance, and then published videos of the campaign on Youtube, according to the complaint.
The group then gave the restaurant owners a list with an "exorbitant number of violations that had been allegedly committed against the employees and threatening to sue if they were not addressed within 10 days," the lawsuit states.
Liberato claims he knew nothing of the potential worker unrest in his restaurant, and that "not a single worker" whom the LWC claimed to represent had ever communicated any of the purported problems to him. He says no claims were ever filed with the Labor Department.
But that was only the beginning of a "long campaign of harassment" against the restaurant, according to the complaint. Since April 19, the tactics "escalated and no longer provide any semblance of permissible picketing and protesting."
He claims the group has disseminated his telephone numbers through social media sites such as Facebook, encouraging people to call and complain about "allegedly abusive labor practices."
Liberato says that even though two employees mentioned in the campaign's flyers were never threatened with termination, and both are gainfully employed, "the defendants are never ones to let the truth get in the way of a good campaign," and "the public was duped into making hundreds of harassing phone calls and Mr. Liberato was forced to change his phone number."
"In short, notwithstanding that Mr. Liberato has not been found culpable of any wage-theft violations, the defendants are demanding that the general public identify him as a wage thief and call to ostracize him about it," the lawsuit states.
Liberato says he got about 80 phone calls in just an hour, causing him to cancel his service and change his phone number.
The group then orchestrated biweekly protests in front of the restaurant on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 10 a.m. and noon, then again from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily to "yell at potential patrons in order to discourage them from entering the establishment," according to the complaint.
"Again, never ones to be tied down by the truth, defendants make the false allegation that plaintiffs have threatened their employees with contacting Immigration and Customs Enforcement in order to garner a greater wrath against Liberato Restaurant and its patrons," the complaint states.
The organization then posted flyers in the neighborhood in Spanish, accusing Liberato of wage theft, and including a picture of him.
The restaurant owner wants the court to order them to stop, and punitive damages for defamation, libel, slander, nuisance and trespass.
Also named as defendants are Rosanna Rodriguez Aran and Mahoma Lopez Garfias
Liberato is represented by Martin Restituy.
The original "Rude Mechanicals" are six workmen, led by Quince and Bottom, who stage a play within a play in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."