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Employees sue owner of popular Portland restaurant, seek $160K

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Employees sue owner of popular Portland restaurant, seek $160K

PORTLAND — A group of restaurant workers filed a lawsuit in federal court Jan. 6, claiming a local restaurant owner has violated labor laws.

Two current and four former employees of The Front Room are suing chef/owner Harding Smith for $160,000, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.

Smith, in a prepared statement, called the lawsuit frivolous and the allegations false.

The plaintiffs, represented by attorney Donald Fontaine and assisted by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Maine, claim Smith did not pay them minimum wage or overtime, violated tip sharing laws, didn't give them mandatory breaks and failed to withhold taxes.

In Smith's defense, 22 current and former employees on Jan. 8 released a letter supporting him, saying they stand behind Smith and against "this outside group and the lies they are spreading."

ROC-Maine is part of a national organization that advocates for better working conditions for restaurant workers. The Maine branch was founded a couple of years ago.

In his statement, Smith said, "... We consider this is a frivolous lawsuit and simply continued harassment by the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a national group with its own agenda."

The employees who came to his defense also accused ROC-Maine of harassment and "spreading lies."

"They said they weren't there to disrupt business, but they did disrupt business and made our customers nervous," the letter, supplied to The Forecaster by Front Room bartender Bob Murphy, said. Murphy was refering to a Dec. 4 dinner-time picket line outside The Front Room by ROC members and disgruntled employees.

Smith opened The Front Room on Congress Street four years ago and also owns The Corner Room and The Grill Room on Exchange Street. He did not return a call seeking comment.

In addition to the lawsuit, ROC-Maine said a National Labor Relations Board complaint is being filed on behalf of plaintiff Sean Slaughter, who was fired by The Front Room in December. The group claims Slaughter was fired in retaliation for organizing with fellow workers around their claim of unfair treatment at the popular Munjoy Hill restaurant.

In his statement, Smith said Slaughter quit and has a personal vendetta against him.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net

This report was updated on Jan. 12.