Smiling Goat owner suing several former employees, union

The owner of Smiling Goat Organic Espresso Bar is suing several former employees and a local union for hundreds of thousands of dollars claiming they "unlawfully conspired amongst themselves" to harm the company's revenue and defame the owner.

Lawsuit says Smiling Goat sales dropped after baristas made public complaints

Some former employees say Kit Singh threatened to fire them for speaking out about unpaid wages. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Halifax's Smiling Goat Organic Espresso Bar is suing several former employees and a local union for hundreds of thousands of dollars, claiming they "unlawfully conspired amongst themselves" to defame the owner and harm the company's revenue.

Two separate lawsuits filed on behalf of Kit (Jagpreet) Singh and his company, Hebron Hospitality Group, name a total of six former employees from the chain of local coffee shops, along with their union, Local 2 of Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

In March, multiple baristas spoke out publicly during a number of protests, claiming their paycheques were bouncing, and some of them hadn't been paid in months. 

This is the first time Singh has initiated legal action against employees. However, to date, more than half a dozen lawsuits have been filed against Singh for unpaid bills. 

Claim of 'defamatory conduct' 

The two combined lawsuits against the former employees are asking for more than half a million dollars in damages.

In one of them, Singh alleges his former employees' actions led to a loss of his reputation and business revenue.

He contends that a barista, two team leads and a manager, along with the union, engaged in "defamatory conduct." That conduct included participating in public rallies and social media posts in which they suggested Singh had personally stolen wages from them.

"Mr. Singh did not use [Smiling Goat] funds to take his children to Disney World," the statement reads.

Singh also claims that employees quit without warning, which led to a loss in sales.

Michael Sampson is one of the former employees named in the lawsuit. He says he and the baristas plan to fight the claim.

"It's ridiculous," he said. "[Singh] is making an attempt to bully us around. He failed to pay staff and is now trying to get more money out of them...for what could simply just be a quick fix. Just send off the money he [owes.]"

Sampson is also being sued for an additional $3,600 for six weeks' wages. Singh claims Sampson failed to provide proper notice of resignation. Sampson says he gave a week's warning and quit when he was asked to train new replacement workers who he believed wouldn't be paid.

"It seems kind of ridiculous that his failure to pay staff, pay general bills—important things that are required to keep a business running—resulted in staff leaving, all this stuff going public," he said.

"I can't think there's anyone to blame but himself in this situation."

None of the allegations has been tested in court and the defendants have yet to file a response to the claim.

Kit (Jagpreet) Singh is the owner of Smiling Goat Organic Espresso Bar. (Southwest Property)

Singh seeking punitive damages, money from tip jar

In the first lawsuit, Singh and his company are looking for a total of $250,000 in punitive damages, along with general damages for loss of reputation and future loss of income.

The lawsuit also seeks money from a 'tip jar' that the public made donations into, as well as any money acquired from a GoFundMe account that was set up for baristas.

The statement of claim is also asking for $67,096.95 in lost revenue from March 31 to May 31, which Singh says started when baristas spoke out.

"During the months of April and May 2018, overall sales at each location were down by approximately 50 per cent," the documents say.

"In recent months to help finance the business, Mr. Singh personally advanced approximately $120,000 into the business, $40,000 from the sales of personal assets and the remainder through funds borrowed from family members," the statement of claim reads.

Second lawsuit targets union organizers

A second lawsuit filed on behalf of Singh's company Hebron Hospitality Group is also seeking a total of more than $350,000 in damages, arguing former employees and the SEIU "conspired and encouraged employees" to stay in their jobs so they could vote in favour of joining the union.

At the time, only some of the Smiling Goat locations were unionized.

The statement of claim says after they voted in favour of joining the union, those employees quit en masse.

The lawsuit seeks $100,000 from the union and four former employees for "conspiracy to inflict economic harm" along with more than $11,000 in lost revenue for three weeks following the "mass resignation."

It also claims an additional $250,000 against the union and one former employee, arguing that they led a "conspiracy to affect a mass resignation to further their own economic interests."

Bernadine MacAulay, Singh's new lawyer who filed the claim, is a senior corporate lawyer with expertise representing employers in labour matters, according to her website.

"They got together, and said well, we have to hurt him financially. And that, in our opinion, is wrong," she said.

MacAulay says Singh's side of the story deserves to be told.

"Mr. Singh and his wife have tried really, really hard to keep this business alive. They could have walked away months ago, but they haven't. They keep trying," she said.

The labour board ruled in early June against one former employee that claimed his job was unfairly terminated. The board  contended that his actions of speaking out against the company led to decreased revenue, making it more difficult for employees who were owed money to be paid.

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About the Author

Marina von Stackelberg

Journalist

Marina von Stackelberg is a CBC journalist based in Halifax. She previously worked for CBC Sudbury. Connect with her @CBCMarina or marina.von.stackelberg@cbc.ca