Why Teamsters were Acquitted After Menacing the “Top Chef” Crew

I remember where I was when I first blogged about this case – a hotel in San Francisco. Some things just stick with me. Perhaps I remember this because I found the actions of the Teamsters so outlandish. As outlandish as they were, they were, unfortunately, lawful – and had been since 1973.

This case arose out of events in 2014 when the Top Chef television crew was filming at a restaurant in Boston. The union used non-union vehicle drivers, but Teamsters Local 25 wanted the show to hire Teamster drivers. The show did not use Teamster drivers because it already had (non-union) employees serve as drivers.

According to Padma Lakshmi, celebrity host of Top Chef, a car in which she was a passenger tried to enter the restaurant’s parking lot to begin filming but was blocked by Teamster Local 25 members. The Teamsters “swarmed” Lakshmi’s vehicle and were “furious.” One Teamster leaned his arm into the car and said: “Lookee here, what a pretty face,” or “what a shame about that pretty face.” Lakshmi interpreted this to be a threat to her physical safety. She testified she was terrified over this, and a witnessed confirmed Lakshmi was stunned. That’s not all. The Teamsters vociferously slurred racist, misogynist, and homophobic taunts to the show’s crew while nine of the show’s production vehicles had their tires slashed.

Sounds pretty bad, right? Prosecutors agreed, and charged the Teamsters members with attempted extortion and conspiracy to extort. But, since the U.S. Supreme Court case U.S. v. Enmons (1973), this activity is lawful, and the Teamsters were acquitted. As summed up by one of the Teamsters’ lawyers, “it’s not unlawful to be mean.”

The Hobbs Act says it is illegal (criminal extortion) to threaten or use violence to obtain the property of another without consent. That is exactly what the Teamsters did here. But, Enmons, in interpreting the Hobbs Act, held that union member conduct, even if at times violent or destructive, cannot be prosecuted as criminally extortionate when that conduct was intended to further “legitimate union objectives, such as higher wages in return for genuine services that the employer seeks.” Here, Teamsters argued that their actions were intended for the lawful purpose of influencing the production company to hire Teamster drivers and to pay Teamster wages for driving services needed by the production company.

I hope this case is further appealed to the United States Supreme Court (and the Court takes it). A crime should be a crime. The Supreme Court should re-evaluate the immunity from extortionate crimes that Enmons provides unions.

Matt Austin owns Austin Legal, LLC, a boutique law firm based in Ohio that limits its representation to employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. You can reach Matt by calling him at (614) 285-5342 or emailing him at Matt@MattAustinLaborLaw.com.