Lawsuit: Conway cafe manager beat handicapped worker, treated him as slave

The J&J Cafeteria, its owner and the manager are being sued in federal court by a former worker.
The J&J Cafeteria, its owner and the manager are being sued in federal court by a former worker. Charles D. Perry, The Sun News

Two Charleston law firms on Monday filed a federal lawsuit against a Conway cafe where the attorneys allege a white manager enslaved a mentally handicapped black man, beating him in the head with a frying pan, burning him with hot tongs and forcing him to work unpaid hours, according to court records.

McLeod Law Group and David Aylor Law Offices filed the case on behalf of Christopher Smith against J&J Cafeteria, owner Ernest Edwards and his brother, manager Bobby Edwards.

"We are committed to securing justice for Christopher," Smith’s attorney W. Mullins McLeod Jr. said in a prepared statement. "Based upon the facts as we know them, the conduct in this case is as troubling as anything I have seen in almost 20 years of practicing law."

Neither Edwards brother could be reached for comment.

Smith worked at the Fourth Avenue cafe for about 23 years and for the last four he lived in an apartment directly behind the restaurant, according to court records.

The lawsuit alleges that the physical abuse started when Bobby Edwards began managing the diner about five years ago.

Smith was forced to work 18-hour days Monday through Saturday and an 11-hour Sunday shift, according to the lawsuit. He received no breaks or days off, let alone any benefits, health insurance or vacation time.

Smith also received no pay for the time he worked, according to court records. Bobby Edwards told Smith a bank account was being kept for him, but he never had access to it.

Smith lived in a roach-infested apartment that Bobby Edwards owned, according to court records. Smith was also prevented from seeing his relatives.

Bobby Edwards is accused of hitting Smith with a frying pan, a spatula, belts and his fists, according to the lawsuit. He would also dip tongs into hot grease, then press the burning utensil against Smith’s neck.

"Defendant Bobby repeatedly and habitually called Plaintiff the ‘N’ word, derogatorily referring to Plaintiff’s race," the complaint states.

Smith’s lawyers contend he was too afraid to report the abuse.

“The threats coupled with the actual physical abuse caused Plaintiff to fear Defendants such that he felt coming forward would be fruitless and only cause Plaintiff to suffer more aggravated abuse or even death,” the lawsuit states.

Smith escaped the abuse when the Department of Social Services received a concerned citizen’s report from the S.C. Governor’s Office about a vulnerable adult in danger, according to court records.

On Oct. 10, 2014, Conway police responded to the restaurant and met with DSS representatives, who found scars on Smith’s back.

Smith was placed into adult protective services and Bobby Edwards was charged with second-degree assault and battery. His criminal case is still pending, according to Horry County court records.

Although Ernest Edwards is not accused of abusing Smith, he ignored the concerns raised by those who witnessed it, the lawsuit states.

Smith’s lawyers are asking for compensation for pain and suffering, loss of income, back pay and overtime pay, and future medical care, among other damages.

Smith remains in the care of protective services because he is unable to live by himself, said Ellis Roberts, an attorney with McLeod Law Group.

Charles D. Perry: 843-626-0218, @TSN_CharlesPerr