- Associated Press - Monday, December 14, 2015

RENO, Nev. (AP) - A federal judge who once was legal counsel for a public housing authority in Las Vegas is sending mixed signals about whether he’ll grant class-action status for a lawsuit accusing the Reno Housing Authority of breaking U.S. labor laws.

The suit claims the Reno authority illegally hires assistant apartment managers to work at public housing at a fraction of the minimum wage - with no overtime - in exchange for free rent.

Lawyers for a disabled U.S. military veteran are seeking class-action status for the lawsuit over the practice that they say is “morally as well as legally wrong.”

The authority’s lawyer denied the allegations during a hearing Thursday before U.S. District Judge Robert C. Jones.

The judge began the hearing by warning that plaintiffs face an “uphill battle” to secure class-action status, but he later appeared to soften his stance. He plans to rule on the matter this week or next.

Jones told the lawyers “this is all interesting to me,” noting that he represented the Clark County Housing Authority for a decade but didn’t consider that a reason to recuse himself.

The original plaintiff, Joaquin Roces, 49, says he was fired in August. Roces said he was ordered out of his home with the equivalent of $600 monthly rent in retaliation for complaining that he was receiving less than $1 an hour for working, or being on call to work, more than 150 hours a week.

The lawsuit targets the in-kind compensation for “live-in” employees. It says that in addition to working regular work weeks of at least 40 hours, they’re required to be on site and available to respond within 15 minutes for an additional 113 hours a week.

Chuck Zeh, a lawyer for the authority, said the number of hours worked and the extent to which the live-ins are on call has been greatly exaggerated.

“Nothing requires them to be on premises for even 1 minute,” he said. “They can go to the movies. They can go to dinner. They are not tied to their unit.”

Zeh said the authority’s records indicate that on average, Roces responded to fewer than three off-hour calls per month.

“This individual, we say the maximum hours he worked a week was 17 hours. Others, maybe less,” Zeh said.

Leah Jones, one of Roces’ lawyers, said seven additional plaintiffs want to join the lawsuit, and as many as 20 may be involved if class-action status is granted.

Jones said he suspected the “circumstances vary” for each of the individuals, depending on their duties, the size of the individual housing complex and the property values in various locations used to calculate how much value they received in the form of free rent.

“What does it mean to be on call under each of these contracts?” the judge asked. “Does on call mean 24 hours a day?”

But Mark Thierman, Roce’s lead attorney, said each of the potential plaintiffs signed the same contract and were responsible for the same kind of work.

“All these individuals have the same written agreement. There is no variation of duties,” Thierman said. “Whether it is nailing up boards or checking on cars … they are engaged for at least 55 to 65 hours a week.”

Thierman said the question of the value of the rent is only relevant later in the awarding of any potential damages.

“Either way, it works out below minimum wage,” he said.

Near the end of the hearing, Jones said “it sounds like the duties are entirely the same at all the complexes.” Jones said he would take the matter under advisement and planned to rule within 10 days. A trial isn’t expected to begin before May 2016.

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