On Friday, October 21, the legal team representing three Virginia Tech students filed a motion to dismiss lawsuits brought against the college students by their former employer under Maryland’s anti-SLAPP (strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute.
The students, Riley DeHority, Hannah Steincamp, and Anna Pletch, were all employees of a bookstore in Blacksburg, Va., when they first filed administrative complaints with the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry (DOLI) after learning they were being paid below the state minimum wage. Upon receiving DOLI’s enforcement action the owner of the chain of bookstores, BookHolders, LLC, sued all three students in Maryland state court, alleging breach of contract and invoking the arbitration agreement they had signed when they were first employed.
Prior to filing claims against the students, BookHolders’ CEO sent all three students threatening letters demanding that they drop their complaints or face legal action.
In response to BookHolders’ legal action against the students, attorneys defending DeHority, Steincamp, and Pletch argue that the students’ reports to law enforcement are not a breach of their arbitration agreements, and that the lawsuits were brought in bad faith to deter them from engaging in protected First Amendment activity.
“I’m fighting this case because I don’t want BookHolders to keep stealing from their employees,” said Virginia Tech student and defendant Riley DeHority. “I had no idea how common it is for employers to abuse arbitration agreements to silence vulnerable workers. You can’t make employees sign a contract just to steal their wages later with no consequences, but it happens all the time. Even though we were all being paid below minimum wage, even after the missing paychecks, most of my coworkers were scared of reporting. A lot of them couldn’t take the risk, because they rely on that job to pay rent and eat. If we don’t fight this now, BookHolders gets to keep taking advantage of student workers who need their jobs to survive.”
“We hope that the Maryland district court will promptly dismiss these lawsuits and put an end once and for all to BookHolders’ abusive use of arbitration as a weapon to silence and chill its employees,” said Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs Senior Counsel Dennis Corkery.
“The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that arbitration agreements cannot be used to prevent employees from filing complaints with government agencies regarding violation of labor laws,” said Public Justice Access to Justice Co-Director Karla Gilbride. “Every worker has the Constitutional right to engage with their government and report wrongdoing. Dismissing this case sends a strong message to other employers that they cannot weaponize arbitration provisions to evade accountability for breaking the law.”
The legal team representing the students includes Karla Gilbride of Public Justice, Mark Hanna and Adam Breihan of Murphy Anderson PLLC, and Dennis Corkery and Joanna Wasik of Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.