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Eatery Said to Treat Disabled S.C. Man as Slave

(CN) - The white manager of a unassuming Conway, S.C. eatery 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 grueling hours, largely without pay, a federal lawsuit claims.

In a complaint filed in the Florence, S.C. Federal Court, attorneys for John Christopher Smith say their client, whom they describe as "mentally handicapped with mild cognitive impairment," worked for J&J Cafeteria in Conway for 23 years, most of them without incident.

But that changed, they say, when defendant Bobby Edwards began managing the restaurant four years ago.

From that time forward, the complaint says, Smith was forced to work 18 hours a day, Monday through Saturday, and 11 hours on Sunday.

Despite the hours he put in, Smith received no pay, no benefits, no breaks and no days off, and for the last four years has been forced to live in a roach-infested apartment that Edwards owned behind the restaurant.

"Defendant Bobby indicated that he maintained a separate bank account at his personal bank for the benefit of Plaintiff," the complaint says. "Defendant Bobby represented that Plaintiff's bank account possessed more than $30,000. Plaintiff has not been paid that money or given access to such an account."

Smith was also repeatedly subject to physical, emotional and mental abuse, until he was rescued by the South Carolina Dept. of Social Services on Oct. 10, 2014.

"Defendant Bobby hit Plaintiff in the head with a frying pan. Defendant Bobby beat Plaintiff with a spatula, belts, a belt-buckle, and his fists," the complaint says. "Defendant Bobby burned Plaintiff by putting tongs into hot frying grease and then touching those hot tongs to Plaintiff's neck and exposed skin."

The chilling account goes on: "Defendant Bobby would physically restrain Plaintiff to the premises of Defendant Cafeteria and force him to labor and work, even on occasions where Plaintiff was sick and weakened to the point he had to be carried home and physically fed drink and food."

"Defendant Bobby would move Plaintiff into the freezer, cold locker, back office or other part of Defendant Cafeteria to commit acts of physical harm and threats of severe abuse," the court documents says.

During the beatings, witnesses, who have since provided information to authorities, said Smith would plead, "No, Bobby, please!"

Smith never reported the abuse because he was terrified of what would happen if he did, the complaint says.

"Defendant Bobby continually and repeatedly threatened severe physical harm to Plaintiff," the complaint says, telling him he would "Beat Plaintiff until people would not recognize him and that he would beat Plaintiff's brains out of his head."

The complaint says Bobby Edwards' brother, Ernest, the owner of the restaurant, was told of the abuse, but failed to do anything to stop it.

According to Smith's attorney, after their client was rescued after Conway police and Department of Social Services case workers were called to the restaurant.

Bobby Edwards was charged with second-degree assault and battery, and his criminal case is pending.

Smith was placed into Adult Protective Services. He then attempted to apply for unemployment compensation, but was denied because the restaurant never reported the amount of wages he actually earned.

Smith seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages on claims of slavery, race discrimination, disability discrimination, assault, battery, negligence, negligence in hiring, false imprisonment, fraudulent misrepresentation, and violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and South Carolina Payment of Wages Act.

He is represented by W. Mullins McLeod, Jr. of the McLeod Law Group, and David Aylor, of David Aylor Law Offices, both in Charleston.

Neither Edwards brother could be reached for comment.

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