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First Wage Theft Charges in Harris County History Brought Against Million-Dollar Homeowner for Refusing to Pay House Painter

Prosecutors filed the first ever wage theft case in Harris County this week against a homeowner who refused to pay a self-employed independent contractor $2,300 for painting the homeowner’s home worth over $1.5 million.  Sonny D. Nicholas, 62, is charged with Theft of Service for work completed by the house painter in April.

“This is about treating people decently and obeying the law,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said.  “We follow the evidence, and we are not going to let employers rip off contractors, just as we won’t let contractors steal from the public.”

The defendant’s home is located in the affluent Houston-area city Southside Place, near West University.

After agreeing to pay the painter $3,000, Nicholas gave him a check for $500 to cover supplies, according to charging documents.  The check bounced, and Nicholas refused to pay anything further.  The painter said had to pay the other workers he had hired to help complete the job out of his own pocket.

Although the Texas Legislature passed what was known as the Wage Theft Law in 2011, the statute has been used little by prosecutors statewide.  The statute establishes that employers commit a crime when they don’t pay workers for their time and service.  Some employers have been known to try and take advantage of employees who they think fearful contacting authorities for help.

Miya Shay, a reporter from Houston ABC affiliate KTRK-TV, talked with Marianela Acuna of Fe y Justicia Worker Center in Houston.  Acuna explained why those that commit wage theft believe that they will not be caught.  She said:

“The person who is committing the crime is well aware of the power that they have in the relationship and the need and the dependence that the workers have on the job that they are holding.”  She said that employers think they can get away with wage theft because they know that workers need the job and are vulnerable, so they are afraid to speak out.

Victims of wage theft can contact organizations such as Fe y Justicia Worker Center, the AFL-CIO’s Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, and the Worker Defense Fund, as well as local police, so that offenders can be prosecuted.

With regard to Nicholas, after a few days of painting, he requested a substantial amount of additional work be done, but insisted he wanted it included in the original price, according to charging documents.  When the painter refused to do the additional work with no further compensation, Nicholas became upset and told him to leave.  The painter then asked for help from the Fe y Justicia Worker Center and the Southside Place Police Department.

Nicholas was arrested Wednesday as he made a court appearance on unrelated criminal charges.  He faces up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine, if convicted.