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Judge denies motion to dismiss ex-employee's lawsuit against Pillen Family Farms
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Judge denies motion to dismiss ex-employee's lawsuit against Pillen Family Farms

From the What you missed this week in notable Southeast Nebraska crimes and court cases series
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The lawsuit filed by a former employee against a pork production company owned by gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen cleared a hurdle to move forward this week.

Attorneys for Pillen Family Farms had asked a federal judge to dismiss Luis Lucar's complaint. 

Jim Pillen mug

Pillen

Lucar filed the case in July alleging he was fired as a human resources specialist in 2019 for refusing to participate in hiring workers without proper citizenship documents and falsifying documents so workers could avoid taxes and child-support payments.

He had worked there for seven years. 

A spokesman for Pillen's campaign has called the allegations “completely baseless and false.”

Jim Pillen mug

Pillen

Pillen, a University of Nebraska regent from Columbus, is one of seven people who have announced their candidacy for governor in 2022. Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts is term-limited and cannot run for a third term.

In court documents, Pillen's attorney, Tara Tesmer Paulson, asked Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Rossiter Jr. to dismiss two of Lucar's claims, saying they hadn't been specific enough and failed to state a claim.

She said he failed to allege that he had reported a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act or that his termination fell within a public policy exception to Nebraska’s employment at-will doctrine.

Under the doctrine, she said, "unless constitutionally, statutorily or contractually prohibited," an employer can terminate an employee at any time with or without reason unless the motivation for the firing contravenes public policy. 

Former worker sues pork production company owned by gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen
No cause determined in hog barn fire at Pillen Family Farms; no sign of foul play

On the other side, Lucar's attorney, Kathleen Neary, argued that an employee's internal, verbal complaint to his or her employer about alleged Fair Labor Standards Act violations was sufficient to trigger anti-retaliation provisions. 

In the lawsuit, Lucar alleges that from 2015 until his firing, he repeatedly complained about activities by the company, including the hiring of workers who lacked authorization to work in the United States, changing names on government and company documents so workers could avoid paying taxes or child support, and misclassifying workers as "independent contractors" to avoid paying taxes.

"Mr. Lucar repeatedly refused to engage in such alleged unlawful conduct and repeatedly voiced his opposition to such conduct to defendant’s human resource employees and top managers. As a result, Mr. Lucar was wrongfully fired in contradiction of the public policy of the State of Nebraska and the United States of America," Neary said. 

In an order Thursday, Rossiter said at this stage Lucar needed only to plead sufficient facts, if true, showing that he is entitled to relief. 

Though thin, he wrote, Lucar's allegations were sufficiently clear and detailed for Pillen to understand he was alleging FLSA violations and "contain sufficient factual matter to state a plausible claim of retaliatory discharge under the FSLA."

As for the at-will doctrine argument, the judge said at this point, he was "unable to say definitively that Pillen’s alleged retaliatory conduct falls outside of Nebraska’s public-policy exception and that Lucar has no plausible claim."

Rossiter said both sides now can conduct discovery to better develop the issue. 

Pillen businesses returned bulk of $7 million in pandemic loans

Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger

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Public safety reporter

Lori Pilger is a Norfolk native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been a public safety reporter for the Journal Star since 2005.

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