God’s Way Ministries seeking to settle lawsuit

DOVER — A faith-based nonprofit charity still wants to discuss a state-filed civil lawsuit seeking $15,000 in penalties for improperly deducting less than $340 in wages from thrift store employees last year.

God’s Way Ministries, Inc. seeks to talk in a more informal setting than at a trial.

The Delaware Department of Labor says negotiations are complete and the matter is headed to Justice of the Peace Court after God’s Way rejected a $5,000 offer to settle. A trial has not been scheduled.

Founder Roger Wood said God’s Way made a $3,000 offer to settle the matter that was not accepted.

Attorney for God’s Way Ronald G. Poliquin said he reached out to the Delaware Department of Justice, which is representing the state labor department, in July but hasn’t corresponded since. Roger, 58, and his wife Carrie Wood, 49, were also named individually in the suit.

“We’d like to have a meeting so that my clients can explain their side of the story,” Mr. Poliquin said. “The Department of Labor refused to have a meeting with us.”

The matter involves $336.50 deducted from the paychecks of three employees that was discovered during a DOL audit of God’s Way in February 2018. The individual deductions were for $136.50, $180 and $20, and $5,000 fines are sought for each of them.

“The amounts were deducted pursuant to an erroneous policy where employees would be deducted for certain violations,” Mr. Poliquin wrote to DOJ Deputy Attorney General Oliver J. Cleary in a letter on July 17, 2018.

The way Secretary of Labor Cerron Cade sees it, God’s Way was warned but never penalized after an illegal wage deduction issue in 2014 and “we come back a few years later and they’re still doing it … you can’t continue to do it and act as though just paying the money back absolves you of committing a (violation).

“Eventually you get to a point of needing to hold someone accountable.”

The DOL Secretary explained “The basis for the action and requested penalty is the nonprofit’s history of labor law violations.”

According to the DOL, God’s Way had seven prior wage and labor claim violations going back to 2004.

“The $15,000 penalty requested in the current suit is the maximum allowed and is subject to the discretion of the court,” said Secretary Cade, noting that God’s way had revenue of $1.2 million in 2016 based on filed federal tax documents.

Working it out

In the current case, God’s Way immediately reimbursed the employees for the deductions, according to the nonprofit, and “A representative from the DOL informed the Woods that reimbursing the employee in the specific timeframe would fully resolve the matter,” a letter to the DOJ stated.

Husband and wife Carrie and Roger Wood operate five God’s Way Ministries nonprofit thrift stores in Kent and Sussex counties.

“All three impacted employees request the DOL withdraw their prosecution of the Woods and God’s Way.”

Asked for comment the week, spokesman Carl Kanefsky said “The DOJ serves as legal counsel to state agencies, and provides advice as any lawyer would to a client. Any statements regarding issues concerning the agency should come from the agency itself, in this case, the Department of Labor.”

Four years ago, God’s Way also had an issue with an employee’s deductions following a DOL audit, which was noted in the lawsuit.

Mr. Wood didn’t want to retain a lawyer when the case arose this summer, but said he did so when no simple solution was evident.

“(Mr. Poliquin) said there must be something else behind it and we’re trying to find out what that is,” Mr. Wood said. “I do understand that the employment department can be sometimes difficult to work with some times, but I’m not holding any grudges.

“We just want to see it solved and handled, we really do.”

Secretary Cade said his department would have met earlier, but Mr. Wood was “incredibly rude to the staff at the Department of Labor, yelled at an investigator and also (abruptly) hung up the phone (on us).

“It’s also my responsibility to protect the workers in the department and I can’t subject them to being in the same room with someone who has repeatedly spoken down to them and been disrespectful to them even when they’ve been offered a settlement.”

From Mr. Wood’s view about the interactions, “I’d like to talk to someone to try and find out who what that was because it wasn’t me.

“It wasn’t true on my end and I’d like to sit down and figure out just who it was.

“In my last conversation with (DOL) I will say that I took a very direct approach and asked very direct questions while trying hard to get answers to them. I wasn’t yelling or screaming, I know that.”

Mr. Wood said the $3,000 offer to settle was made “even though we didn’t want to or agree with it, but decided to bit the bullet and try to put it behind. They didn’t want to hear it.”

DOL said it considered any offer of a pre-court settlement offer as generous considering that Delaware Code offenses were committed.

Describing the case

In filings with JP Court 13 in Wilmington on June 13, the DOJ provided a God’s Way personnel consent form which employees agree to “pay for poor work performance.” The agreement noted five offenses that could bring charges to the employee of $25 or $50.

Employee violations to be charged including late to work, failure to complete all required paperwork, failure to have a transfer sheet from one store to another, failure to keep in contact with supervisor and returning to the Milford store location with a truck later than 4 p.m.

The written company policy was in place at the time of the onsite inspection addressing the deductions, according to the DOJ.

Employee time sheets were also submitted with the civil action.

Said Secretary Cade, “It doesn’t matter if it was only a few dollars involved, it’s not their money to take back from an individual who has worked for it. We’re talking about upholding the law.”

According to Mr. Wood, “We do feel very strongly that we’re being treated unfairly.

“They’ve pushed it so far and our intention has never been to take advantage of anybody or any organization.”

According to Mr. Poliquin, God’s Way Ministries was named Kent County Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Employer of the Year in 2017 and was founded in 1995 “with a focus on helping those with drug and alcohol problems while providing “transitional housing for the homeless, mentorship, and employment to hundreds throughout Delaware.”

Two employees signed notarized affidavits confirming they were fully reimbursed, asked the DOL to cease prosecution and said Mr. and Mrs. Wood “have always treated me fairly and honestly.” The employees said they would testify to that under oath in court if called.

In an email to Mr. Poliquin on July 24, DAG Cleary responded “My client is unwilling to meet with your client to resolve this.

“Given that Mr. Wood earns over $95,000 per year and given that his non-profit organization has an annual budget of over $1.3 million, the Department stands by its position that a $5,000 civil penalty and an admission of liability are reasonable to resolve this case. The Department is comfortable with litigating the matter in lieu of settlement.”

The DOJ referenced a recent Form 990 tax filing apparently by God’s Way and that “If these numbers are correct, your client would appear to have the financial resources to pay a civil penalty to resolve this matter.

“The Department feels that an admission of liability and the payment of $5,000 is more than appropriate in light of the prior investigation and its ongoing concerns.”

‘Week by week’

The attorney described God’s Way as a “small 501 (c)(3) faith based charity. Defendants Roger Wood and Carrie Wood started God’s Way to help individuals work through their addiction and other life issues.”

God’s Way has five locations in Delaware — two in the Dover area (near Camden and Cheswold), Milford, Georgetown and Rehoboth Beach. The nonprofit has 20 employees in addition to some volunteers.

“We give a lot of money away to those in need, we have proof of that,” Mr. Wood said.

Paying the full fine “could put us out of business,” Mr. Wood claimed. “We run week by week and we don’t have a big account in a bank somewhere.”

Mr. Poliquin countered that “Any violation of the law was inadvertent and has been corrected.

“A penalty of $15,000 will crush God’s Way and the Woods financially. It is also a disproportionate penalty considering that only $336.50 worth impermissible deductions occurred.”

The case has been hard on the couple emotionally.

“It’s been stressful on my wife because she handles the financial books,” Mr. Wood said. “It’s been tough on me too.”

A future goal to build a recovery center in Sussex County is among God’s Way’s plans, along with finishing up a site in Florida.

“We want to keep this thing rolling, we’re not going to throw in the towel even though this is quite a challenge,” he said.

In an earlier email on July 24 that referenced receiving an apparent settlement proposal from God’s Way, DAG Cleary said the DOL “took issue with some of your representations of the activity which occurred in 2014.

“This is not particularly relevant to the settlement of this matter but the Department has ongoing concerns about the ability to trust your client.”

Mr. Poliquin described the 2014 issue as “not analogous to the issue at hand.”

The attorney explained a 2014 attempt to terminate an employee “because he stole items from God’s Way.”

According to Mr. Poliquin, the DOL’s Division of Industrial Affairs did not accuse the nonprofit of violating the current Delaware Code item in question.

The DOL, Mr. Poliquin said, “instructed God’s Way to either hire (the employee) back or reimburse him for the $74.00 deduction. Pursuant to those instructions, God’s Way simply reimbursed (the employee) rather than rehiring him.

“The DOL did not instruct God’s way that deducting any monies from (the employee’s) paycheck was a violation of (Delaware Code) now at issue.”

Added Mr. Poliquin this week, “There was never warning in 2014 that this was an illegal practice. None of the DOL employees at the time are still there.”

Following the audit, God’s Way “scrapped the aforementioned policy, reimbursed the employees, and ceased making any illegal deductions from employees’ paychecks,” Mr. Poliquin explained to the DOJ, reiterating that a policy violation warning was never given in 2014 and God’s Way was “therefore not on notice that it was in violation of (Delaware Code) before February.”

Moving forward, God’s Way hopes to enter into an agreement with the DOL agreeing to be in full compliance of Delaware Code, Mr. Poliquin said.

“Documentation will be provided to the DOL on a monthly basis for two years,” the attorney wrote to DAG Cleary on July 24. “If this is resolution is acceptable to you, please let me know immediately.

“Thank you for your consideration of this resolution.”

 

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.