Stevedore still waiting for $355,000 back pay
By Jim Dooley
Advertiser Staff Writer
Fifteen years after stevedore Quentin "Rocky" Tahara was beaten and permanently maimed by a co-worker on the Honolulu waterfront, he is still waiting for the $355,000 in back pay that a labor arbitrator and a federal judge have repeatedly said is owed him.
Tahara suffered a fractured skull and was blinded in one eye when he was beaten in March 1994 by fellow longshoreman Bruce Perry. Tahara had reported that Perry and other longshoremen who left work at the Matson Navigation container yard shortly after clocking in would still receive a full day's pay.
Tahara's lawyer said the scheme, called "running away," involved about a dozen workers and cost Matson "hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars" and added to the cost of virtually all goods shipped into the state.
After the assault, Tahara entered the Honolulu Police Department's witness protection program and lived in different cities on the Mainland while both HPD and the FBI conducted an investigation of suspected waterfront racketeering called "Operation Harbor Rats."
Perry was tried twice in state court on assault charges but both cases ended in mistrials. Tahara later won a $2.3 million civil judgment against Perry but has collected virtually none of those damages.
When Tahara tried to return to work in 1998, his employer, McCabe, Hamilton & Renny, claimed that he had "abandoned" his job and initially refused to re-hire him and then balked at restoring his seniority and other job benefits.
Tahara's union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 142, filed a grievance on his behalf. In 1999, labor arbitrator Ted Tsukiyama ruled that Tahara had been "made to suffer and endure not only a savage life-threatening beating and lifetime visual disability, but a transfer to a clerk job he was ill-suited for."
Tahara had to "undergo a 20-month exile on the Mainland in the name and cause of protective custody, mostly at personal financial cost to himself," the arbitrator said.
"But for his courageous act of 'whistleblowing' and the dire consequences that followed, he ... would have suffered no financial cost and emotional anguish while in involuntary witness protection program isolation," Tsukiyama found.
"In recognition for all his sacrifices he should have been afforded a hero's welcome at his attempted return to work, but instead was met as an unwanted outcast by his employers and his peers," the arbitrator ruled.
Tsukiyama said in that 1999 decision that the union and employer should mediate the monetary issues and come to a mutual agreement about how much money Tahara was owed.
But that process dragged on for six years without resolution and the parties then went back to Tsukiyama to have him decide what the damages should be.
After more legal skirmishing, Tsukiyama ruled that Tahara was owed $355,580.99.
The debt was confirmed in 2008 by U.S. District Court Judge Susan Oki Mollway, but it still hasn't been paid.
The latest detour is an appeal of the case by McCabe to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in which the company calls Tsukiyama's decisions "wayward" and Tahara's back pay award an unwarranted "windfall."
The company has told the court that it has severe financial problems and can't afford to post a bond for what Tahara is owed while the appeal is pending.
McCabe is the oldest and largest employer of stevedores in the Islands, founded in 1900, providing services to Matson Navigation and other shipping companies that deliver goods to the Islands and cruise passengers to the Islands.
The ILWU has now balked at forcing McCabe to pay the full debt owed to Tahara, saying it must consider the good of the entire union membership, not just Tahara.
"As McCabe has represented to this court, it has been unable to obtain a ($355,000) bond and is likely to be pushed into bankruptcy if the union proceeds with execution on the (Tahara) judgment," ILWU lawyers said in court papers filed last week.
"Immediate execution on the judgment endangers the continued employment of all McCabe employees whom the union represents, a group that includes Mr. Tahara," the union said.
Tahara, 55, and his personal lawyer, Jay Friedheim, want to intercede in the case and block any possible settlement reached between the union and McCabe that would delay or decrease payment to Tahara.
"We like to refer to this as the second beating of Rocky Tahara," Friedheim said in court papers. "In the first beating, Bruce Perry only crushed his skull and blinded him. Mr. Perry did not steal his wallet."
U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie Kobayashi heard arguments on Friedheim's intervention motion and said she would issue a written decision later.
According to court papers, McCabe has offered to pay Tahara an extra $1,000 per week in wages pending resolution of the appeal if he and the union agree to a "stipulated judgment" that does not require the posting of a bond in the appellate case.
The payments would be subject to normal income taxes and other withholdings and would not have to be returned to McCabe if the company wins its appeal.
Company president R. Tim Guard is very unhappy that his firm's financial problems are being aired in court.
"These are lean times for stevedoring companies," Guard said.
"A great deal of time and effort has gone into resolving this dispute," he continued.
Publicity about McCabe's financial situation "could have pretty serious consequences for us," Guard said.
In an ironic twist in the case, when McCabe and later Friedheim tried to file sealed court records concerning the company's finances, they were blocked by a legal precedent set in an earlier whistleblower lawsuit filed by Honolulu police officer Kenneth Kamakana, who helped investigate Tahara's 1994 assault and worked with Tahara in the "Harbor Rats" investigation.
In that case, records detailing activities within the HPD's secret Criminal Intelligence Unit originally filed under seal were opened to the public after The Advertiser filed legal protests about the secrecy.
The unsealing decision was written by Magistrate Kobayashi and was later upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
When Friedheim tried last week to file the financial records under seal, Kobayashi stopped him.
"No one is filing anything under seal without leave of the court," she said, citing the Kamakana case.
"I'm painfully aware of that case because it was my case," she said.