Black man who was forced to work for free awarded $546,000 in restitution

Bobby Paul Edwards admitted he used violence and intimidation to force employee John Christopher Smith to work more than 100 hours a week without pay at a Myrtle Beach buffet restaurant.
Bobby Paul Edwards admitted he used violence and intimidation to force employee John Christopher Smith to work more than 100 hours a week without pay at a Myrtle Beach buffet restaurant.

Credit: Horry County Sheriff's Office

Credit: Horry County Sheriff's Office

Former manager serving 10 years in prison for extreme case of labor cruelty

A Black man with intellectual disabilities who was forced to work at a South Carolina restaurant without pay for five years should receive more than half a million dollars from his former manager who is currently serving 10 years in prison for the crime of forced labor, an appellate court ruled last month.

A U.S. District Court judge awarded $273,000 to John Christopher Smith in 2019 for unpaid wages and overtime compensation for slave labor he performed between 2009 and 2014 at J&J Cafeteria in Conway, outside Myrtle Beach. But federal labor laws dictate the restitution should have been set much higher, according to the April ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which doubled the man’s compensation to $546,000.

The lower court ruling “erred in failing to include liquidated damages” following a guilty plea by 56-year-old Bobby Paul Edwards who admitted to subjecting Smith to threats, verbal abuse, physical violence and intimidation that led the 43-year-old man to work more than 100 hours per week without pay and with no days off, The Washington Post reported.

The ruling by the federal appellate court cited a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act, stemming from a 1945 Supreme Court decision, which held companies should pay workers double restitution if they fail to pay wages on time to the detriment of that worker’s “minimum standard of living.”

“When an employer fails to pay those amounts, the employee suffers losses, which includes the loss of the use of that money during the period of delay,” the court said in the April ruling.

Smith began working at the cafeteria as a dishwasher and busboy in 1990 when he was 12 years old and the business was being run by Edwards’ relatives, according to court records.

But in September 2009, during Smith’s 19th year on the job, Edwards took over as the restaurant’s manager and years of abuse soon followed.

According to court documents, Edwards immediately took advantage of Smith’s mild cognitive disability and moved him into a roach-infested apartment that he owned, keeping the man isolated from his family, physically abusing him and threatening to have him arrested.

In a shocking example of brutality, Edwards once dipped metal tongs into hot grease and pressed them into Smith’s neck after he supposedly failed to timely deliver fried chicken to the buffet, according to court records.

Smith said he felt like a prisoner.

“Most of the time I felt unsafe, like Bobby could kill me if he wanted,” Smith said, according to court records. “I wanted to get out of that place so bad but couldn’t think about how I could without being hurt.”

Fellow employees feared Edwards, which allowed the abuse to continue until October 2014 when the relative of another employee called authorities.

Smith was placed into Adult Protective Services, and Edwards was charged with second-degree assault and “attempt to establish peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude or human trafficking.”

“For stealing his victim’s freedom and wages, Mr. Edwards has earned every day of his sentence,” Sherri A. Lydon, U.S. attorney for the District of South Carolina, said in 2019. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office will not tolerate forced or exploitative labor in South Carolina, and we are grateful to the watchful citizen and our partners in law enforcement who put a stop to this particularly cruel violence.”

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