The Barrio Latino restaurant 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 college student.
In reality, he's anything but innocent.
Santana leaves the car running and jogs across Sunset Drive in South Miami. 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 Santana, gripping him by the shoulder and guiding him toward the exit. "I told you not to come back here."
"Where's my paycheck?" Santana 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. Santana gets back in his car and screeches off.
He doesn't make it far. An off-duty police officer eating next door hears the bang and dials 911. Cops pull Santana 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 South Florida'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," Santana 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, Santana is an unlikely if not unlikable hero who calls out South Florida restaurants on the hundreds of ways they steal from employees. He terms himself a "revolutionary." But to Scheer and countless other restaurant owners in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, he's a scam artist who does nothing but sue his employers.
The truth is that in the past nine years, Santana 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's 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 Santana, 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 Santana. "Actually, he's not crazy. He's fucking smart."
Santana is all smiles as he leaves the new 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 pub says it doesn't open until Sunday, but Santana can already smell another lawsuit cooking.
"They're not even open yet, and they're already slipping up," he says gleefully. "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."
Santana has just finished a full shift, but he's buzzing with manic energy. He says the local restaurant business is shady. "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 chain restaurant in the Gables. He sits at an elegant wooden bar next to giant vats of organic, homemade grapefruit vodka and pages through a clownishly oversized menu.
Asked if he already sued Seasons 52, Santana laughs. "Funny story. I actually sued the manager here twice."
Santana was born Edward Manuel Santana on November 22, 1971, in Downey, California. His mother, Frances, had moved to the United States as a teenager from the Dominican Republic. His father, Victor, was a mechanic. Santana was the youngest of three kids, arriving three years after older brother, Luis. When Santana was 3 years old, the family moved across the country to 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," Santana recalls.
Although his grades rarely rose above B's, Santana had a talent for keeping track of endless details. "Everyone always told me that Santana 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, Santana 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.
The family rented an apartment in Kendall. Santana 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 asked that his last name be changed for fear of losing his current waiting job — remembers Santana 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, Santana and Ruiz were walking home from Café Iguana when Santana spotted spare change on the ground near a turnpike toll bucket. A cop saw Santana pocketing the coins and told him to throw them in the bucket. Santana 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: Santana 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.
Santana 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.
Santana 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 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 that 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 allegedly gave monthly bonuses to its managers.
Santana 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?" Santana asks the bartender, a soft-spoken guy named Tony. "I used to work here."
"Oh, yeah," Tony says slowly, trying to place Santana's smirk.
"I sued this place," Santana adds.
The bartender nods nervously and pours a drink.
A year after his first lawsuit against Brinker, Santana hit Hillstone (then called Houston's) with a similar set of complaints. When the upscale eatery fired Santana shortly afterward, he added a "retaliation" charge. The resulting settlement remains Santana'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 $20,000.
He's pushing his luck by even coming here.
Dawn Blum — Santana's wife, or fiancée, or girlfriend, depending on which day of the week you ask him — sits demurely beside him. A thin blond with pale skin, butterfly tattoos, and sad, red-rimmed eyes, she looks nervous, as if awaiting a coming storm.
Santana orders a water for Blum 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 Santana 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?" Santana shoots back.
"Yeah, we've got papers."
"We'll, I've got papers too," Santana 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," Blum 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 Santana's lawsuits has spread like a spilled soft drink across South Florida. Restaurant owners, fellow waiters, police officers, judges, and lawyers know his name.
Santana 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 the suits. 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, Santana'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, Santana 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 Santana — to make it tougher for employers to look up his history. His settlements 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. Santana settled for $7,000.
• City Cellar Wine Bar & Grill: In a 2006 suit, Santana and friend Ruiz accused the now-defunct Miracle Mile restaurant of undercounting hours and failing to pay for training. Santana walked away with $4,800.
• Tony Roma's: Santana sued the ribs and 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: Santana 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 Santana when it found out about his Yard House lawsuit, he says. Eddie sued for retaliation and received a $4,000 settlement.
• Seasons 52: Santana 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 Santana's manager when he sued Hillstone. Marcoe sent him home, and Santana sued.
Santana's victims — or abusers, depending upon 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.
Adrian Scalia, an Argentine manager at Graziano's, says he knew Santana was trouble. "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." Santana 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, Santana ate dinner at the restaurant only to hand a coupon for the meal to a busboy instead of his server. When the waiter saw him leaving, he thought he was running out on the bill. He rushed after him and put his hand on Santana'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 Santana'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 Santana "treated litigation against [the company] as a sport."
Santana's fellow waiters support him — at least to a point.
"I got to give it to him: It takes balls to do what he's doing," 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 thinks Santana 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 coworker says. He also requested anonymity because he says he'll be blackballed just for being associated with Santana. "I'm not going to sit here and lie to you that Santana 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. Santana carefully sorts 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 Blum and her two young children from previous relationships, reappearing with a tome the size of War and Peace. It's a copy of Santana'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 Santana's mind, he's a modern-day David slinging rocks at South Florida'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. Santana denies having a drug problem, but the issue threatens to derail his lawsuits as restaurants paint him in court as an unreliable addict.
"If I were really a drug addict like they say, would I be so organized?" Santana 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, Santana 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.
Santana 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 larceny charge, and a judge withheld adjudication on the drug rap, but the incident would stick with Santana.
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, Santana strolled out of the supermarket without paying. When two Winn-Dixie employees told him to stop, Santana said he would shoot them. Then he reached under the seat of his car and flashed a small black handgun before driving off.
Santana says that it was a friend who shoplifted and that 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," Santana 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.
While he was incarcerated, several banks closed his accounts and sent cashier's checks to his old address. Santana claims his brother cashed them without telling him. While behind bars, Santana 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 his brother, who couldn't be reached by New Times for comment. "I sued my own brother. What does that tell you?" Santana says. "My lawsuits aren't about the money. It's a matter of principle."
If Santana settles even half of the nine lawsuits he has pending, he will make six figures this year without serving a single meal. He says he'll use the money to quit the game: move away from South Florida, 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 Santana 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 Santana's assault hearing. The restaurant owner remembers that night in detail. Ten days earlier, Santana had shown up at Barrio Latino with a beer in hand, asking for a paycheck.
"I never hired him," Scheer insists. "Never." When Santana showed up a second time, Scheer says he asked him to step outside. Then Santana 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 Santana 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 Santana.
When Santana ran to his car and grabbed what Scheer assumed was a gun, "I thought I was going to get shot," Scheer says.
Santana 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?" Santana asks. "I'm not that stupid."
But as usual, Santana 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 pinstriped 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?' "
Santana 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 in Hollywood. Santana 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.
Santana 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."