A former doggy daycare assistant filed a lawsuit on June 21 against Love Dogs Camp, demanding that the Arroyo Grande company pay as much as $142,000 in back wages and penalties. The worker’s civil complaint also makes several allegations about the management practices of the generally reputable canine care facility.
Heather DeFehr, who reportedly worked at Love Dogs Camp from Nov. 30, 2011, to July 31, 2012, claims owner Carolyn Leighton intentionally misclassified her as an independent contractor to avoid paying overtime and providing state-mandated breaks.
DeFehr claims Leighton made her work at the facility for consecutive days on end with few opportunities to leave and then paid her for significantly fewer hours worked.
“It was literally every day; from midnight to midnight,” DeFehr told New Times.
Another part of the complaint deals with the tasks Leighton allegedly asked DeFehr to complete. The pleading contends Leighton instructed DeFehr to give the dogs Benadryl, ignore the dietary instructions of owners, and deny knowing anything about injuries suffered by the dogs kept at the facility.
Finally, DeFehr alleges Leighton took steps to actively conceal her status as an employee to state and federal regulators.
“Leighton told [DeFehr] that the personal checks Leighton would write for [DeFehr’s] paychecks would have to be written in different amounts each pay period so the Internal Revenue Service did not catch on to the fact that [DeFehr] was working as an employee,” the complaint reads.
Employees, and not independent contractors, receive the protection of California wage and hour laws. U.S. Department of Labor officials call an act of intentional concealment of an employee’s status wage fraud. If the claims in DeFehr’s unverified complaint prove accurate, California could assess penalties against Love Dogs Camp in excess of $15,000. A pleading remains unverified unless the plaintiff signs an affidavit under penalty of perjury that all contained facts are true.
Love Dogs Camp attorney Steven Chanley said Leighton intends to file a response, and remarked that every story has two sides. Citing the firm’s policy, Chanley declined to comment on the merits of the complaint.
Leighton created Love Dogs Camp in 2002 to provide a more home-like alternative to kenneling. The facility features furnished indoor space and five acres of outdoor open space.
The plaintiff’s attorney, Matthew Da Vega said he included details about the operation of the facility in order to establish that Leighton controlled the actions of DeFehr on the job—a state law element in classifying a worker as an employee. However, Da Vega also admitted the details regarding treatment of the dogs made the complaint more interesting.
“We tried to take care of this quietly,” he told New Times.
DeFehr’s $142,000 wage claim, without penalties and interest, includes $12,500 in back wages and $67,000 in unpaid overtime.
There’s also a landlord-tenant wrinkle to the dispute. Leighton judicially evicted DeFehr from her Arroyo Grande apartment two months after the term of alleged employment ended. DeFehr said she believes the eviction was retaliatory even though the lease was month-to-month at the tenant’s request.