Kudos to Michele Sahn of the Asbury Park Press for giving some attention today to the kind of story that often stays below the radar of dailies of that size. In the process, she shines some light on the difficulty that undocumented workers can have in getting paid.

Mexican immigrants Benito Guendulain, 37, and his 19-year-old nephew, Salomon Zavaleta, were in small claims court in Freehold yesterday hoping to be heard on their claim that landscaper Michael Curialle stiffed them for a combined 234 hours of work they’d done for him last month.

From Sahn’s report:

During the morning roll call of small claims cases, [Superior Court Judge Mark A.] Sullivan told the workers that Curialle had not yet been served with the paperwork for their case, but then they recognized him in the courtroom.

Turns out Curialle was there being sued by another party, a landscape supply company.

Sullivan ordered Curialle, Guendulain and Zavaleta to arbitration, which is the usual process for small-claims. But when they couldn’t agree on a settlement, the judge held a hearing.

Guendulain testified that he told Curialle he didn’t have papers to work in the the U.S., and that Curialle hired him on the condition that he try to obtain the papers. Guendulain said he worked two 78-hour weeks for Curialle without any payment, and Zavaleta testified he worked one 78-hour week, also unpaid. Curialle told the judge that the pair did not work for more than four days. He said he paid one $50 and another $200, and when their paperwork came back as fake, he told them they couldn’t work anymore.

Sullivan said he found the worker’s testimony more believable, and ordered Curialle to pay $1,940 to Guendulain and $970 to Zavaleta. That works out to $12.43 an hour.

Guendulain and Zavaleta came to the United States from their native Mexico 10 months ago and have been living in Freehold, Sahn reports. They were accompanied to court by a representative from Casa Freehold, an immigrant-rights advocacy group.

Curialle had argued that he needed more time to bring in witnesses because he hadn’t been served with papers in the case. Sullivan told him that if he has newly discovered evidence, he will be allowed to apply for the judgment to be set aside.

Curialle also lost the other case. He was ordered to pay $2,873.45 to Triple C Nurseries in Marlboro, which claimed Curialle had paid for goods with a check and then stopped payment before the check cleared.