Longform

Eddie Santana Makes Six Figures by Suing Restaurants From the Inside

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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.

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Michael E. Miller