South Miami Cuban restaurant Barrio Latino is bustling when a black 2010 Acura pulls up across the street. A lean, young man with caramel skin, a round nose, and spiky black hair steps onto the sidewalk. It's 8 p.m. — four hours until his 39th birthday — but Eddie Santana still looks like a doe-eyed Miami Dade College student.
In reality, he's anything but innocent.
Eddie leaves the car running and jogs across Sunset Drive. It's a Sunday in late November, and the eatery has been open only a couple of weeks. He's here to pick up $60 in wages for training as a waiter. When he steps through the door, however, owner Edwin Scheer comes tearing around the bar like a linebacker escaping a block. Neighboring restaurants have warned the short, stocky Cuban-American with a salt-and-pepper goatee about the would-be waiter's habit of suing his employers.
"Get out," Scheer says to Eddie, gripping him by the shoulder and guiding him toward the exit. "I told you not to come back here."
"Where's my paycheck?" Eddie shouts. "You owe me!"
In an instant, the two are out on the street. Customers look up from their ropa vieja and ceviche to see Santana and Scheer pressed chest to chest, spittle and obscenities flying. Suddenly, Santana turns and walks back to his car. He opens the passenger door and reaches under the seat. Then he sprints back across the road toward Scheer with his right hand low and to his side, as if holding a handgun.
Scheer bolts toward his restaurant. But before he can reach the door, something whizzes past his head and across the busy patio before exploding against the restaurant's hurricane-proof glass with a deafening boom. Hearing what they think is a gunshot, customers scream and hit the floor. Eddie gets back in his car and screeches off.
He doesn't make it very far. An off-duty police officer eating next door hears the bang and dials 911. Cops pull Eddie over a few blocks from Barrio Latino and arrest him on charges of assault with a "deadly missile," which turned out to be a water bottle.
The spat is far from over. Scheer made the mistake of messing with Miami's most infamous — and litigious — waiter. After posting bail, Santana hit Barrio Latino with a lawsuit alleging unpaid wages, false arrest, and false imprisonment. Even as he faces criminal charges, Santana is seeking tens of thousands from Scheer.
"He's going to have to pay for what happened," Eddie angrily says of the November incident. "I spent my birthday in jail for nothing. He deserves to go bankrupt paying me for what he did."
To fellow waiters, Eddie is an unlikely if not unlikable hero who calls out Miami restaurants on the hundreds of ways they steal from employees. He terms himself a "revolutionary." But to Scheer and countless other restaurant owners in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, he's a scam artist who does nothing but sue his employers.
The truth is that in the past nine years, Eddie has filed 30 lawsuits against companies — nearly all restaurants and bars — for everything from illegal tip pools to excessive uniform costs. He's netted $144,924.79 after attorney fees from 20 separate settlements. And from the nine suits still pending, he hopes to make another $100,000, if not more. The guy even sued his own brother.
But word has spread about Eddie, leaving him practically unemployable. And he might soon repeat the ten-month stint he did in the slammer several years ago. His biggest adversary might end up being himself.
"This guy's crazy," Scheer says of Eddie. "Actually, he's not crazy. He's fucking smart."
Eddie Santana is all smiles as he leaves Miller's Ale House in Coral Gables. It's a warm February afternoon, but he's swaddled in a black dress coat over slacks and a polo shirt with the Ale House logo. A sign outside the faux mom-and-pop pub says it doesn't open until Sunday, but Eddie can already smell another lawsuit cooking.
"They're not even open yet and they're already slipping up," he says gleefully as he and a New Times writer head west on Miracle Mile. "They make us go to shift meetings without letting us clock in first. That's unpaid labor. And they're forcing us to give part of our tips to people who shouldn't be getting any. You can't do that shit.
"The restaurant industry here in Miami is shady as hell," he continues. Eddie has just finished a full shift, but he's buzzing with manic energy. "Managers cut corners all the time. They make you pay for your uniform, which they're not supposed to do. They make you buy a new shirt, shoes, pants, a crumber, a bottle opener, even an apron. Then they undercount your hours and take your tips. All that is illegal. All of it."
A few minutes later, he enters Seasons 52, a fancy Gables bar and grill. He sits at an elegant wooden bar next to giant vats of organic, homemade grapefruit vodka and pages through a clownishly oversize menu.
"Eddie, didn't you sue this place?" New Times asks.
"Funny story," he says, laughing. "I actually sued the manager here twice."
Edward Manuel Santana was born November 22, 1971, in Downey, California. His mother, Frances, as a teenager had moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic. His father, Victor, was a mechanic. Eddie was the youngest of three kids, arriving three years after older brother Luis. When Eddie was 3 years old, the family moved across the country to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
Victor was a good mechanic but a lousy husband. The owner of a gas station and auto shop in Canarsie once punched his wife in the face during an argument. But he instilled in his youngest son a fierce sense of self-respect. "My father taught me right from wrong and to pay people what they're owed," Eddie recalls.
Although his grades rarely rose above B's, Eddie had a talent for keeping track of endless detail. "Everyone always told me that Eddie was going to be a scientist, he was so smart," remembers Frances Santana. "But I always thought he was going to be a lawyer. He has a mind like a trap."
When Victor and Frances separated in 1986, Eddie decided his mother, older brother, and he should move somewhere new. Miami Vice was on television every week, and the South Florida sunshine seemed irresistible to the 15-year-old. He had saved $5,000 working at a grocery store.
So, Eddie says, he bought plane tickets and then a jalopy for $1,000. The new, smaller family rented an apartment in Kendall. Eddie attended Sunset Senior High School, working after class and on weekends in fast-food joints. Luis struggled to find work.
High school buddy Orlando Ruiz (who later joined Eddie in one lawsuit) remembers Eddie as shy and slightly embarrassed by his plain white T-shirts and old jeans. In the years after graduation, the two hung out often at Café Iguana, a nightclub in Kendall's Town & Country Shopping Center. "We were both young and single," Ruiz says. "We got into a lot of trouble together."
In 1994, Eddie and Orlando were walking home from Café Iguana when Eddie spotted spare change on the ground near a Turnpike toll bucket. A cop saw Eddie pocketing the coins and told him to throw them in the bucket. Eddie refused and was arrested for theft. A judge threw out the case, but legal trouble lingered. Three years later, he was arrested twice more: once for petit larceny and again for obstruction of justice when he refused to snitch about a fight at Café Iguana. He paid a $108 fine.
The larceny charge was dropped: Eddie claims he was shopping at Marshall's with his brother, who shoplifted a shirt. "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person," he recalls. It wouldn't be the last time.
Eddie studied hospitality management at Miami Dade College but dropped out during his second year. Instead, he began working in restaurants. The late hours and cash tips suited his lifestyle. He graduated from KFC to Chili's, where he was promoted from busboy to server and then to bartender. He spent his tips at nightclubs. "I got addicted to the industry," he says.
Eddie remembers his first lawsuit like most people recall their first kiss. In 2002, he was working at On the Border Mexican Grill in Kendall when he received a letter from attorney Lawrence McGuinness, who has made a career of suing Miami restaurants for labor violations. The letter described a class-action complaint against the restaurant's parent company, Brinker Florida Inc., for underpaying its waiters. It alleged the company "encouraged" keeping servers off-the-clock until their first table showed up and clocking them out as soon as their last table left. With the money it supposedly saved by skimming hours from its waiters, Brinker gave monthly bonuses to its managers.
Eddie met with McGuinness and signed on to the lawsuit. When the company settled, he netted a quick $8,000. He was hooked.
Eddie Santana might be the most hated man on Miracle Mile, but tonight he slides up to the bar at Hillstone with no problem. "Hey, man, remember me?" Eddie asks the bartender, a soft-spoken guy named Tony. "I used to work here."
"Oh, yeah," Tony says slowly, trying to place Eddie's smirk.
"I sued this place," Eddie adds.
The bartender nods nervously and pours a drink.
A year after his first lawsuit against Brinker, Eddie hit Hillstone (then called Houston's) with a similar set of complaints. When the upscale eatery fired Eddie shortly afterward, he added a "retaliation" charge. The resulting settlement remains Eddie's single biggest haul to date. Although he is forbidden from discussing it because of a confidentiality agreement, New Times discovered independently that he received a $20,000 windfall.
He's pushing his luck by even coming here.
Dawn Blum — Eddie's wife, or fiancée, or girlfriend, depending on which day of the week you ask him — sits demurely beside him. A thin blonde with pale skin, butterfly tattoos, and sad, red-rimmed eyes, she looks nervous, as if awaiting a coming storm.
Eddie orders a water for Dawn and the most expensive beer on the menu for himself. After all, New Times is buying. Then he picks up the wine menu. He stares at the name of one bottle with a $140 price tag. "I can buy bottles like that after my settlement," he says, referring to his pride and joy: a pending lawsuit against nearby Ruth's Chris Steak House for alleged unpaid wages, tip skimming, sexual harassment, and retaliation. He says he's received offers of $5,000 and $10,000 but plans to hold out for $50,000.
The bartender sets the beer down, but Eddie barely has time for a sip before a middle-aged man in a burgundy tie walks up from behind and taps forcefully on his shoulder. "You can't be here, Eddie," the manager says. "You know that. We've got the tab, but our lawyers say you can't come in here. You have to leave. Now."
"You got papers that say that?" Eddie shoots back.
"Yeah, we've got papers."
"We'll, I've got papers too," Eddie snaps, abruptly pulling a clear binder of legal documents from under his black jacket and waving it in the air.
"Eddie, let's just go," Dawn says quietly, tugging at his arm. As customers look up from their $13 gin and tonics, the manager holds open the door to make his point: Get out.
In fact, word of Eddie's lawsuits has spread like a spilled soft drink from Miracle Mile to downtown and out to the suburbs. Restaurant owners, fellow waiters, police officers, judges, and attorneys all know his name.
Eddie is now locked in a lucrative but chaotic cycle of new jobs and lawsuits. The more restaurants he sues, the more likely that other employers will hear about him. But if they fire him — or, in several cases, simply refuse to hire him — and somehow cite previous lawsuits, he sues them for "retaliation."
Over the years, he's become so well versed in restaurant labor law that his attorneys don't even charge him for filing lawsuits anymore. "They take them on spec," he boasts. "By now, they know that if I file something, it's legit."
While the validity of his lawsuits is open to debate, Eddie's maniacal persistence is not. "A lot of people look at me and say, 'Eddie, that's your job: filing lawsuits.' It's not, but if restaurants keep screwing me around and stealing my money, then I'm going to sue them."
Indeed, Eddie spends as much time juggling legal proceedings as serving food. Since his first lawsuit, he has won settlements against 11 restaurants, often filing under different first names — Edward, Eddie, Edy, Eduardo — to make it tougher for employers to look up his history. His settlements, all documented, include:
• Johnny Carino's: The Italian restaurant in Doral fired him in 2005 without knowing he had already filed a lawsuit. When lawyers realized, they claimed he hadn't been let go. Eddie settled for $7,000.
• City Cellar Wine Bar & Grill: In a 2006 suit, Eddie and friend Orlando Ruiz accused the now-defunct Miracle Mile restaurant of undercounting hours and failing to pay for training. Eddie walked away with $4,800.
• Tony Roma's: Eddie sued the seafood restaurant twice, once in 2006 as a waiter and again after a 2010 visit, when he says a waiter "manhandled" him after mistakenly thinking he had walked out on his tab. He won $7,500 in 2006 and $2,300 this past February.
• Yard House: Eddie sued the Coral Gables burger and beer joint over unpaid wages in 2006, settling for $2,500.
• Shula's 347: Just around the corner from Barrio Latino, Shula's 347 fired Eddie when it found out about his Yard House lawsuit, he claims. Eddie sued for retaliation and received a $4,000 settlement.
• Seasons 52: Eddie made $1,500 without working a single day. Tired of a branch in Homestead, he requested a transfer to the upscale eatery on Miracle Mile. But the manager who interviewed him was Gary Marcoe, who had been Eddie's manager when he sued Hillstone. Marcoe sent him home, and Eddie sued.
Eddie's victims — or abusers, depending on how you look at it — are spread from Pembroke Pines to Homestead. But nowhere is he more infamous than in Coral Gables, the yuppie heart of Miami's multibillion-dollar restaurant industry. On Miracle Mile, almost every sit-down has a story.
"As soon as I started training him, I knew he was a trouble guy," says Adrian Scalia, an Argentine manager at Graziano's on Giralda Avenue. "When I fired him, he freaked out and called the police. He lied and told them I touched him. The police told me to pay him that night, so I paid him." Eddie signed a document promising not to sue and walked off with $514.
"He's pretty much a con artist," claims Arturo Zuzunaga, a baby-faced manager at Tony Roma's in South Miami. According to him, Eddie and Dawn ate dinner at the restaurant, only to hand a coupon for the meal to a busboy instead of their server. When their waiter saw them leaving, he thought they were running out on the bill. He rushed after them and put his hand on Eddie's shoulder to stop him.
"He kept yelling, 'Stop harassing me.' Now he's saying the waiter dislocated his shoulder. Are you kidding me?" Zuzunaga scoffs. "He just wants money to shut up."
In a letter to Eddie's lawyer, attorneys for Brimstone Woodfire Grill in Pembroke Pines — a defendant in another suit — went further still. "The fact that Santana has engaged in a pattern of making claims against a number of restaurants where he has been briefly employed makes it clear that he is engaged in an ongoing scheme to use litigation as a means of extorting money from employers," the letter said.
And in a recent motion to dismiss Santana's suit, lawyers for Ruth's Chris wrote that Eddie "treated litigation against [the company] as a sport."
Eddie's fellow waiters support him — at least up to a point.
"I got to give it to him; it takes balls to do what he's doing," Orlando Ruiz says. "Restaurants take advantage of their employees day in and day out, so it's good that he's fucking them back. I guess it's open season on them."
But even Ruiz — who asked that his last name be changed for fear of losing his current waiting job — thinks Eddie has now gone too far. "Eddie is on a rampage with these lawsuits; he's on a mission," he says. "I can't believe he's doing this, sometimes. But then again, maybe he's doing a public service by putting all these restaurants in check." Other waiters are less charitable.
"Personally, I think he's fucking nuts," another former co-worker says. He also requested anonymity because he says he'll be blackballed just for being associated with Eddie. "I'm not going to sit here and lie to you that Eddie is a great guy changing the restaurant world, because he's not. He's doing this for personal gain. He finds a reason for the restaurants to fire him; then he sues. He knows all the tip-offs and how to file for retaliation or discrimination.
"That's what these restaurants do: They break the law," he adds. "So you can always find something to catch them on."
Like a cartel kingpin, Eddie Santana sits at his living room table surrounded by snow-white stacks. But instead of snorting lines of coke, Eddie is carefully sorting piles of legal documents. His small, neat Kendall apartment is a sea of lawsuits, arrest records, and affidavits.
He walks to the bedroom he shares with Dawn and her two young children from previous relationships, reappearing with a tome the size of War and Peace. It's a copy of Eddie's deposition from the Ruth's Chris lawsuit.
"I paid $1,400 for a copy of this," he boasts, showing New Times the receipt. "I have to read it to make sure I don't contradict myself in court. They try to catch you like that."
In Eddie's mind, he's a modern-day David slinging rocks at Miami's Goliath restaurant industry. But his role as the righteous avenger is tainted by his own criminal record, which, according to court documents, includes possession of crack cocaine. Eddie denies having a drug problem, but the issue threatens to derail his lawsuits as restaurants paint him as an unreliable addict in court.
"If I were really a drug addict like they say, would I be so organized?" Eddie asks, disappearing and emerging once more with bottles of Xanax and Clonazepam: anti-anxiety medications. "This is all I take, and I have a prescription for them."
Court records suggest otherwise. In October 2006, Eddie was arrested on charges of cocaine possession and petit larceny after Martino Tire Co. in Kendall accused him of driving off without paying for $200 in merchandise. When cops showed up at his apartment, they found a crack rock in his front left pocket, according to a police report.
Eddie claims his brother, Luis, took the tires after he had lent him his car. He also says the cocaine was planted on him by cops, who illegally searched his neighbor's apartment. "Cops can't enter your home unless in 'immediate or fresh pursuit,'" he says, citing Florida law. "It was such bullshit."
A court eventually threw out the drug charge, and a judge withheld adjudication on the larceny rap, but the incident would stick with Eddie.
Four months later, he was arrested for stealing a half-dozen steaks from a Winn-Dixie on Sunset Drive in Kendall. According to an arrest report, Eddie strolled out of the supermarket without paying. When two Winn-Dixie employees told him to stop, Eddie said he would shoot them. Then he reached under the seat of his car and flashed a small black handgun before driving off.
Eddie says it was a friend who shoplifted, and there was no gun. But he spent nearly a month in jail before pleading no contest to third-degree grand theft. A judge assigned him to two years of probation and a drug rehab program because of the earlier crack cocaine charge.
"The judge thought I was robbing stores because I have a drug problem," Eddie scoffs. But he failed to report to his probation officer after his release. When he finally showed a week later, he tested positive for benzodiazepines, such as Xanax. He was rearrested for breaking parole. This time he was locked up for nine months.
"Prison was really fucking rough for me," Eddie admits. His grandmother died a month before his release. Even worse, while he was incarcerated, several banks closed his accounts and sent cashier's checks to his old address. Eddie claims his brother, Luis, cashed them without telling him.
"My own brother robbed me while I was sitting in jail," Eddie says, almost laughing. Luis did not return requests for comment. When New Times looked for him, his last listed home address turned out to be a strip mall pet store.
While behind bars, Eddie sued six banks over the check debacle. When he was released in December 2008, he negotiated settlements including a $25,300 check from SunTrust. He even sued Luis — perhaps the only lawsuit he's never settled. "I sued my own brother. What does that tell you?" Eddie says. "My lawsuits aren't about the money. It's a matter of principle."
If Eddie settles even half of the nine lawsuits he has pending, he will make $100,000 this year without serving a single meal. He says he'll use the money to quit the game: move away from Miami, maybe even start his own restaurant. Then he'd never have to sue anyone ever again.
But the Barrio Latino case threatens to shatter that already unlikely dream. If Eddie is convicted of assault, he could wind up back in jail for two months. A conviction would also scupper any chance at a settlement with Scheer and encourage other restaurants to go after him. At least that's what Scheer hopes.
"I want a precedent on record in case this guy goes psycho," says Scheer, sitting in a Miami-Dade courtroom for Eddie's assault hearing. The restaurant owner remembers that night in detail. Ten days earlier, Eddie had shown up at Barrio Latino with a beer in hand, asking for a paycheck.
"I never hired him," Scheer insists. "Never." When Eddie showed up a second time, Scheer says he asked him to step outside. Then Eddie lifted a chair and smashed it onto the pavement.
"That's when he started yelling, 'Hit me! Why don't you hit me, pussy?'" Scheer remembers. "He was obviously trying to provoke me into starting a fight so he could sue me."
Scheer's girlfriend, a server named Vanessa Acurio, says she saw Eddie spit and kick at her boyfriend when he turned his back. The loogie landed; the kick did not. "He looked like a devil," Acurio says of Eddie.
When Eddie ran to his car and grabbed what Scheer assumed was a gun, "I thought I was going to get shot," Scheer says.
Eddie contends he lost his temper only when Scheer spit in his face and refused to pay him.
"Why would I show up to a restaurant that owed me money and start a fight?" Eddie asks. "I'm not that stupid."
But as usual, Eddie has an out. Scheer's security cameras failed to record the fight. "These restaurants think that just because I've made mistakes in my life that they can just do whatever they want and get away with it," he says after appearing in court in an immaculate pinstripe suit and gold tie. "They look at us waiters like trash, like peons or second-class citizens, and say, 'You're a criminal, so who's going to believe you?'"
Eddie has already gotten the "deadly missile" charge dropped, but he still faces misdemeanor counts of assault and disorderly conduct. Another stint in jail is a real possibility. Almost as bad, he was recently fired from jobs at Miller's Ale House and Bongos Cuban Café at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Eddie claims he was axed because he had sued both establishments for stiffing him. Bongos says he quit.
As he leaves the courthouse, a middle-aged woman in a skirt and suit jacket stops him.
"Can you help me find my courtroom?" she asks.
Eddie politely explains to her that she has to go back down to the first floor. "See? She thought I was a lawyer," he grins. "It happens all the time."
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