A GOP Senate Candidate Blames “Liberal” Judges for His Labor Violations. Just One Problem With That.

The judges were largely appointed by Republicans.

Mother Jones illustration; Joe Maiorana/AP; Getty

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Bernie Moreno, the Trump-endorsed Republican candidate for US Senate in Ohio, focuses his campaign on a central theme. “All public policy priorities in America should revolve around a simple concept: what is good for American workers,” his campaign website states.

But as the former operator of M11 Motors, a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Burlington, Massachusetts, Moreno was found liable by a jury for practices antithetical to this pro-worker platform: Withholding at least $53,500 in overtime wages from two employees between 2015 and 2018 and shredding company documents relevant to the lawsuit while the case was ongoing. Lately, he has falsely blamed his legal troubles on the “liberal” and “activist” judges involved in the outcome of his case. 

“Of course, a judge who’s this absolute lunatic activist made all kinds of accusations that painted the jury,” Moreno—formerly the largest luxury car dealer by volume in the Midwest, previously owning Aston Martin, Maserati and Porsche dealerships in Ohio—told Always Right Radio host Bob Frantz in late January.

“That judge is a Harvard elitist lunatic,” Moreno said on January 22 when asked about the legal proceedings, first reported by the Columbus Dispatch, in a televised debate against the other two Republican Senate candidates running for the competitive seat currently held by Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown.

But there’s a problem with Moreno’s defense: it isn’t true. The judge overseeing Moreno’s jury trial, Michael Ricciuti, was no liberal activist. He was a Republican-appointed jurist who also served as chief of the anti-terrorism and national security unit of the Boston US Attorney’s office under President George W. Bush. The state supreme court that later upheld a wage regulation requiring employers like Moreno to pay sales staff overtime was also predominantly conservative.

Since 2015, the Massachusetts Department of Labor has required that car salesmen are entitled to overtime pay even when they receive salary and commissions, and that sales commissions do not count toward overtime.

That law contributed to a whopping judgement in Moreno’s case, with a jury finding him liable for withholding wages from both employees in the suit in 2022, forcing him to pay $416,160 in damages. (Moreno eventually settled at least a dozen additional wage-theft cases for undisclosed amounts.) During the proceedings, Moreno was also found by Ricciuti, the Republican-appointed judge, to have shredded company documents related to the case that Moreno and his lawyers “were required to preserve” and “knew or should have known [were] relevant.”

The plaintiffs’ argument was strengthened by a 2019 Massachusetts State Supreme Court ruling on a related case about sales staff and overtime wages. In that case, Sullivan vs. Sleepy’s, the court unanimously determined that sales staff were entitled to overtime wages.

Even if commission sales are equal or greater to what overtime would be, “separate and additional overtime is owed,” the court wrote. “In most circumstances, employers may not retroactively reallocate and credit payments made to fulfill one set of wage obligations against separate and independent obligations.” 

Moreno’s campaign has also depicted these state supreme court judges as liberal activists. “A liberal Massachusetts court changed the rules governing every single commission-based sales company in the state, in an act of rank judicial activism,” Moreno campaign spokesperson Conor McGuiness told Business Insider.
 
It was an “extreme lunatic, judicial Supreme Court over there,” Moreno himself said of the state supreme court on the Always Right radio show.
 
But of the seven-judge state supreme court that unanimously upheld the wage regulation, five judges were appointed by then-Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican.
 
Moreno’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on why he has repeatedly stated that activist judges caused a jury to side against him for wage theft.

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