On Oct. 17 D.C. District Court Judge Robert Wilkins issued a show cause order for criminal contempt against Epicurean owner Chang Wook Chon for allegedly failing to comply with court orders pertaining to two lawsuits brought against him by his employees.
An order to show cause requires an individual to appear in court to provide legal or factual reasoning why legal action should not be taken against him or her. In this particular situation, Chon is allowed to defend himself against the criminal contempt charges alleged by Judge Wilkins, but if he cannot provide an adequate defense, he will be indicted on the charges.
The criminal contempt charges were made in response to Chon’s alleged use of threats and intimidation tactics with employees who had filed lawsuits against him for withholding overtime pay. As previously reported in the Voice, Chon has faced three lawsuits over failure to pay overtime: two filed in 2010, the other this year. The previous suits were reopened this year, and the suit filed this year was settled on Sept. 12.
“Based on the evidence presented in the hearing, the judge found probable cause that Mr. Chon had violated a previous court order by talking about the case with his employees in a way that prevented them from having a fair opportunity to advance their case,” said Darin Dalmat, attorney for the plaintiffs in the overtime wage lawsuit.
Part of the evidence presented in last Wednesday’s hearing included a testimony by plaintiff Marvin Hercules, one of Chon’s former employees.
“Towards the end of 2011, probably in December, I received another letter about [the overtime pay] case,” Hercules said. “It came from court and said that I should come to court on December 14, … Shortly after I received this letter, Mr. Chon called me to his office and asked me whether I had received it.”
Chon told Hercules that he could have the day off to go to court and gave Hercules directions to the courthouse.
“He also told me that it wouldn’t do me any good to go, because my case was already closed. Finally, he told me that he wanted to give me a piece of advice: if I wanted to keep my job, I shouldn’t go,” Hercules said.
Until the criminal charges against Chon are resolved, however, the single remaining lawsuit against him (which was reopened for Mr. Hercules) will be put on hold.
Chon’s case is rather peculiar for an overtime wage complaint. “[It is] exceedingly rare for a judge to issue an order regarding criminal contempt for an overtime [wage] lawsuit,” Dalmat said. “Even my boss, who has been working in law for more than 20 years, has never encountered a situation like this before.”
Chon’s criminal contempt charges have been referred to the U.S. Attorney of the District of Columbia Robert Machen. Even if these charges are rejected by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Judge Wilkins has the authority to appoint another prosecutor to Chon’s case. Therefore, there is a very high chance that Chon will be prosecuted in court for these alleged criminal contempt charges.
The consequences Chon will face if found guilty are still unclear, part of which depends on the form of jury selected by Judge Wilkins. A bench trial would result in up to a maximum of six months in prison with a $5,000 fine, while a jury trial could possibly result in a more severe punishment. Mr. Chon also still has the option of pleading guilty, and the U.S. Attorney’s office has not made any decisions regarding which charges they will persue.
It is also unclear how Chon’s alleged criminal contempt charges will affect the fate of his restaurant. “On one hand, I hope [Epicurean and Co.] will continue to stay in business,” Dalmat said. “On the other hand, I believe that the employees should receive proper compensation for working overtime.”
Although Chon declined to comment on the case, Kim Jandrain, Chon’s attorney, released a statement with respect to the show cause order.
“An order to show cause regarding criminal contempt is a matter that must be addressed with the utmost seriousness and care. Our client and we are approaching it that way,” Jandrain said. “Given that it is a criminal matter, we cannot comment on the merits, other than to say that we look forward to the matter being heard on the merits.”
With the evidence still in question, Chon’s guilt is far from being assessed. “Mr. Chon will have his day in court to defend himself,” Dalmat said. “Though he should have allowed his employees to do the same.”