Alderman v. 21 Club Inc.
Plaintiffs, unionized waitstaff who worked Defendant’s private banquets filed suit seeking the recover of unpaid tips, pursuant to the New York Labor Law, and unpaid overtime, pursuant to the FLSA. Plaintiffs specifically sought the portion of service charges charged by Defendant, but not paid to Plaintiffs as “tips” as required by New York law. The Defendant moved to dismiss, asserting that Plaintiffs’ claims for unpaid tips were precluded by the LMRA (the CBA stated that banquet waitstaff would receive the equivalent of 18% of the gross price of any banquet they worked). The Court denied Defendant’s Motion, because the claims were pendant not on the CBA, but on the NYLL.
The Court explained:
“As described earlier, plaintiffs’ first claim is under NYLL § 196-d for unpaid gratuities to plaintiffs who worked banquet events at the ’21′ Club. Defendants contend that this claim in reality is one under Section 301 of the LMRA, 29 U.S.C. § 185, which preempts the application of state labor law. Section 301 of the LMRA provides:
Suits for violation of contracts between an employer and a labor organization representing employees in an industry affecting commerce … may be brought in any district court of the United States having jurisdiction of the parties, without respect to the amount in controversy or without regard to the citizenship of the parties.
The Supreme Court has interpreted Section 301 “as a congressional mandate to the federal courts to fashion a body of federal common law to be used to address disputes arising out of labor contracts.” Allis-Chalmers Group v. Lueck, 471 U.S. 202, 209 (1985). When a state law claim alleges a violation of a labor contract or when the resolution of a state law claim depends on an interpretation of a collective bargaining agreement, Section 301 preempts that claim. See Hawaiian Airlines, Inc. v. Norris, 512 U.S. 246, 261 (1994). But if a state “prescribes rules or establishes rights and obligations that are independent of a labor contract, actions to enforce such independent rights or rules would not be preempted by section 301.” Vera v. Saks & Co., 335 F.3d 109, 115 (2d Cir.2003). Indeed, the “bare fact that a collective-bargaining agreement will be consulted in the course of state-law litigation plainly does not require the claim to be extinguished.” Livadas v.. Bradshaw, 512 U.S. 107, 124 (1994). In order to determine whether a state law claim is preempted because it requires interpretation of a collective bargaining agreement, the court must analyze whether the “legal character” of the state law claim is truly independent of the rights conferred under the collective bargaining agreement. Salamea v. Macy’s East, Inc., 426 F.Supp.2d 149, 153-54 (S.D.N .Y.2006).
In the present case, plaintiffs bring their gratuities claim under NYLL § 196-d and not under the CBA. Both § 196-d and the CBA give employees rights in respect to gratuities, although they are worded differently in ways that have significance in this case. Specifically, the CBA guarantees gratuities in the amount of 18% of the total bill for the function. Section 196-d guarantees to the employees whatever has been charged to provide gratuities, without reference to a specific percentage. It is necessary, therefore, for the court to define exactly what plaintiffs’ claim is and then to determine whether it fits under § 196-d or under the CBA or both.
The relevant portions of the complaint are paragraphs 21 and 22 in the factual allegations and paragraphs 33 and 34 stating the claim:
21. For private events, Defendants charged gratuities to the hosts of the events equal to a percentage of the cost of the events.
22. While Defendants distributed a potion of these gratuities to the service staff that worked these parties, Defendants did not distribute all of the gratuities. Thus, Defendants illegally retained substantial portions of the gratuities paid by private event hosts, instead of distributing them in their entirety to service staff.
33. Defendants received gratuities from customers for all private banquets.
34. Defendants retained portions of Plaintiffs’ tips and Class members’ tips.
On their face, the allegations of the complaint do not refer to 18%. However, they are not precise in excluding the possibility that in fact plaintiffs are seeking the 18% referred to in the CBA. But the court believes that the December 29, 2008 letter of union president Bill Granfield is relevant in construing the nature of the gratuities claim. This letter makes a demand that the ’21′ Club pay to employees “the difference between your service charge rate and the 18% gratuity rate contained in the contract.” The reference to “the contract” presumably means the CBA. Thus, in late 2008, the Union was claiming that the service charges were greater than the 18% referred to in the CBA and was demanding that the entire amount be paid to the employees.
The court concludes that the complaint should be taken on its own terms and cannot properly be construed as actually referring only to the 18%.
The complaint asserts that it is made under NYLL § 196-d. That statute provides:
No employer or his agent or an officer or agent of any corporation, or any other person shall demand or accept, directly or indirectly, any part of the gratuities, received by an employee, or retain any part of a gratuity or of any charge purported to be a gratuity for an employee. This provision shall not apply to the checking of hats, coats or other apparel. Nothing in this subdivision shall be construed as affecting the allowances from the minimum wage for gratuities in the amount determined in accordance with the provisions of article nineteen of this chapter nor as affecting practices in connection with banquets and other special functions where a fixed percentage of the patron’s bill is added for gratuities which are distributed to employees, nor to the sharing of tips by a waiter with a busboy or similar employee.
The first sentence of the statute prevents an employer from taking the gratuities received by an employee. The relevant part of the last sentence states that nothing in the statute affects the practice in connection with functions where a fixed percentage is added to the patron’s bill for gratuities which are distributed to employees. The statute is somewhat confusing because the assurance of the employee’s rights in the first sentence is followed by the latter portion of the last sentence which states that the statute is not applicable to functions where an amount is added to the patron’s bill for gratuities.
Plaintiffs cite authorities that they contend give them rights under the statute. It is not the province of the court on the present motion to resolve questions which may arise as to the exact construction of the statute. It is sufficient to say that, as far as state law is concerned, plaintiffs would surely be entitled to attempt to recover under the statute. What defenses there may be under state law, and how the issues are resolved, remains to be seen. One thing is clear under § 196-d, and that is that there is no reference to 18% or any limit of 18%.
On the question of whether plaintiffs’ gratuities claim should be construed as in reality coming under the CBA so that federal law applies, the language of the CBA was quoted earlier in this opinion. The CBA only guarantees 18%. Consequently, a claim for more than 18% is not properly one under the CBA. It is properly made under § 196-d.
The result is, and the court so holds, that the gratuities claim is not preempted by federal law.
The court notes the contention that the history of the Union submissions by way of grievances constitutes an admission that the gratuities claim in the present case properly falls within the ambit of the CBA. The court rejects this argument. The employees did not give up their right to assert a gratuities claim under § 196-d in the present action.”
The Court also ruled that Plaintiffs were not required to submit their claims to arbitration, based on the language in the CBA.
To read the entire opinion, click here.