Few lawyers within the employment bar occupy the same position as Lou Pechman, a Fordham Law graduate who has been practicing in the field for more than three decades. The founder of New York-based Pechman Law Group represents both employees and businesses in employment matters – and has made his mark with cases with both types of clients. Pechman says his mix of cases has generated valuable insights for litigants facing employment disputes while also making his work endlessly interesting.
Lawdragon: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, what would you say is the most interesting matter you have handled?
Lou Pechman: My firm is a bit unusual as we do both sides of the v in employment litigation. Our experience handling plaintiff-side litigation has caught the attention of some corporate general counsel, and they look at our firm as having insight that is not provided by traditional management firms. A Fortune 500 company recently hired us for defense of their Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) litigation because they knew we had a healthy plaintiff-side practice and they wanted a firm that has been in the trenches. After handling a few matters for them, in-house counsel asked us to prepare a draft lawsuit challenging an aspect of their business model which was the genesis of some of their FLSA litigation. We conducted a comprehensive review of their business model and put together a draft complaint that was eye-opening for the client and led to some structural changes which should protect the company in future litigation.
LD: Is there a recent achievement that you wish to discuss?
LP: FLSA cases comprise over 10% of the federal court docket in New York and my firm has handled over 300 of these cases in the past decade. Special rules apply to the settlement of FLSA cases as mandated by the Second Circuit’s Cheeks v. Freeport Pancake House decision. An issue left open in Cheeks, however, was whether a Rule 68 Offer of Judgment required court approval. For a variety of reasons, the Rule 68 option was a preferred course of resolution for both management and plaintiff-side lawyers. On behalf of our client, a Japanese restaurant in New York, we took this issue up to the Second Circuit. The case, Yu v. Hasaki, was closely watched by the FLSA bar. We won the appeal in a divided 2-1 opinion, which overrode a lengthy and passionate dissent from Judge Guido Calabresi. This decision was hailed by both the plaintiff and defense bar as it provides an alternative to settlement that is subject to Cheeks review. It’s a game changer with respect to how FLSA cases can be resolved.
LD: How has firm or practice management changed since the start of your career?
LP: When I graduated from law school, the practice area of “labor and employment law” was dominated by union-management issues. I started my career doing traditional labor law, first at the NLRB, then at law firms, including Skadden Arps, and then as in-house labor counsel at the Daily News. By the time I started my own firm, however, union activity was on the decline and employment discrimination litigation, including sex harassment, disability law, and other protected classes, became the larger part of the “labor and employment” law landscape. In the last 10 years, wage and hour law - fairly dormant since the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 - has seen a meteoric rise and that is the hot area in the “labor and employment law” field right now.
LD: There are many high-quality firms out there. What do you try to “sell” about your firm to potential recruits – how is it unique?
LP: Because we represent both employees and major corporations, we bring a unique perspective to the table. We have experienced the weaknesses and concerns of our own clients, so when we are taking measure of the other side’s position, it’s easy for us to pick up what is real and what is a head fake. Sometimes in negotiations, I am prone to say “Don’t bullshit me. I say the same thing for my clients when I am working your side, but . . .” That can be disarming to opposing counsel and often provides a nice segue into meaningful dialogue.
LD: Is there a matter or client in your career that stands out as a “favorite” or one that is more memorable for certain reasons
LP: The most important case in my career was against Sparks Steakhouse in New York, an iconic New York restaurant where John Gotti’s crew executed mafia boss Paul Castellano in 1986. Our lawsuit and the $3.15 million settlement we achieved for the waiters in that case turned heads and started a wave of restaurant wage-theft litigation that continues to this day. Our settlement in the Sparks case still stands as the largest single-location restaurant settlement ever achieved. It also gave me the idea of starting a content website, waiterpay.com, which contains important information about restaurant employment issues that is useful for both workers and employers. Since the Sparks case, my firm has been involved in over 200 restaurant-pay cases.
LD: Given your heavy involvement in the restaurant industry, how has Covid affected the wage-hour litigation?
LP: For both the restaurants we represent and the workers we represent in the industry, the pandemic has been a nightmare. Notably, the wage-hour litigation in this area has not subsided during the pandemic as workers who have been laid off are now looking for any financial resource they can get. Whereas someone with a job is less likely to sue their boss for wage theft violations, when that worker is fired, all bets are off.
LD: Is there a recent professional development or achievement that’s a highlight?
LP: Although FLSA cases have been exploding in the last 15 years and have become an important practice area for every labor and employment law firm, law schools have not been attuned to this development. I reached out to John Feerick, the former Dean of Fordham Law School (and a former labor lawyer himself) and suggested that Fordham develop a class on the topic. He thought it was a great idea and enlisted me to develop the course “Wage Theft: Employee Rights and Employer Responsibilities.” For the last few years I have been teaching the class at Fordham and I believe it provides the students with some valuable practical insight into what they will encounter in a labor and employment law practice.
LD: What are some aspects of this work that you find professionally satisfying? What keeps you excited about it?
LP: The most interesting aspect of my practice is the range of people we meet and the businesses we learn about. Employment law cuts through entirely different worlds during the course of my day and no day is the same as the day before. On the employee side, my clients range from undocumented workers who were cheated out of wages in construction and restaurants to managing directors on Wall Street and corporate executives. On the management side, we represent transportation companies, restaurants, manufacturers, and Broadway theaters. This diversity of clients and industries keeps things fresh in the practice.