Tag Archives: Owner-Operator

E.D.Cal.: Plaintiff Could Simultaneously Be Part-Owner of Closely-Held S-Corp. and Its FLSA-Covered Employee

Hess v. Madera Honda Suzuki

This case was before the Court on the defendant’s motion for summary judgment regarding all of plaintiffs’ claims. As discussed here, one of the issues the court was asked to resolve was whether someone can simultaneously be a part-owner of a closely held s-corporation and an employee thereof. The court distinguished the case from one concerning a business structured as a partnership, and held indeed the plaintiff could simultaneously be a part-owner of the defendant and its employee. Thus, the court denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment with regard to her FLSA claim for unpaid wages on this ground.

As relevant to this discussion, the court recited the following facts (following a period of employment where the plaintiff was solely defendant’s employee):

As support for the contention Plaintiff was not their employee, Defendants point to evidence in the record, primarily from Plaintiff’s deposition testimony, establishing the following. After investing $100,000 ($50,000 allocated to stock and $50,000 as a business loan) with her husband, Terry Hess, Plaintiff became a co-owner of Madera Honda Suzuki, controlling 24 percent of the 100,000 shares of common stock originally issued by Harry D. Wilson, Inc. (Terry controlled 25 percent; defendant Robert Wilson controlled 26 percent while his wife, Lisa, controlled 25 percent.) Plaintiff was then elected as a director and chief financial officer of the corporation. Pursuant to their investment, it appears Plaintiff and her husband provided personal guarantees to Central Valley Bank for money presumably borrowed by the company. Plaintiff further stated she and her husband provided personal guarantees to American Honda and Suzuki, presumably to cover debts and obligations that might be incurred by the company through its sale of Honda and Suzuki motorcycles. Plaintiff understood it was possible she might lose some or all of her investment, and that even if the business were successful, it would take some time before it would start showing a profit. Plaintiff further understood that although the shares of stock were split 51 percent/49 percent between the Wilsons and the Hesses, everything else—including profits—would be divided equally (i.e., 50/50 between the Wilsons and the Hesses). According to Plaintiff, the business never made a profit.

Plaintiff testified it was her responsibility to pay bills and that she had authority to pay certain expenses, such as rent and dealership insurance, without consulting the other officers. Plaintiff was authorized to issue payroll checks to herself and others if the company had sufficient funds, and it appears Plaintiff issued a check to herself at least once during her tenure as CFO. At his deposition, Wilson testified he and Plaintiff interviewed prospective employees together and that Plaintiff “had a say in everybody [the company] hired.” Wilson further testified Plaintiff handled employee disciplinary matters “95 percent of the time” and that she was not required to consult with him before terminating an employee. It also appears Plaintiff was afforded special benefits. Plaintiff testified “if [she or Wilson] took days off, since [they] were on salary, [they] would be paid the days.” Other employees also had paid vacation, but only for a limited number of days. The company paid for vehicles and fuel for the Wilsons and the Hesses, whereas other employees did not have a vehicle allowance. Per Wilson, the company paid the cost of health insurance for shareholders, including Plaintiff, whereas it covered only part of the premiums for employees, who had to contribute the rest. All of this evidence, Defendants contend, shows Plaintiff was a co-owner, not an employee.

In light of the above undisputed facts, the defendant argued “that Plaintiff [could not] be considered an employee because Plaintiff assumed significant business risk, had involvement and discretion in the corporate decision-making process and was entitled to benefits not available to Madera Honda Suzuki’s other employees, none of which was consistent with employee status.” However, the court disagreed.

The court distinguished case law that has held that partners of a partnership cannot simultaneously be FLSA employees, in part discussing a case previously discussed here, from the situation before it where the alleged employee had a part-ownership interest in an s-corp. The court explained:

Defendants have provided no authority—and the Court’s research reveals no authority—stating categorically that a co-owner and shareholder of a closely held corporation who works for the corporation in another capacity, as was apparently the case here, cannot also be the corporation’s employee for the purpose of the FLSA. Indeed, case law seems to suggest otherwise. See Goldberg v. Whitaker House Co-op, Inc., 366 U.S. 28, 32, 81 S.Ct. 933, 6 L.Ed.2d 100 (1961) (“There is nothing inherently inconsistent between the coexistence of a proprietary and an employment relationship. If members of a trade union bought stock in their corporate employer, they would not cease to be employees within the conception of [the FLSA]. For the corporation would ‘suffer or permit’ them to work whether or not they owned one share of stock or none or many”).

While the court noted similarities between the structures of a partnership and the closely-held s-corp. at issue here, ultimately it reasoned that the differences permitted a co-owner who lacked the ability to use the corporate assets as her own and lacked the ability to use the corporate assets as she thought fit. Further, contrary to the relationship partners have in a partnership where they are primarily investors, the court noted that shareholders such a plaintiff remain economically dependent on the s-corporation and their primary source of income is typically wages earned from the s-corporation:

The fact the company is a closely held corporation is key because shareholders view closely held corporations precisely as a means of acquiring corporate assets through employment: “Unlike the typical shareholder in a publicly held corporation, who may be simply an investor or a speculator and does not desire to assume the responsibilities of management, the shareholder in a close corporation considers himself or herself as a co-owner of the business and wants the privileges and powers that go with ownership. Employment by the corporation is often the shareholder’s principal or sole source of income. Providing employment may have been the principal reason why the shareholder participated in organizing the corporation. Even if shareholders in a close corporation anticipate an ultimate profit from the sale of shares, they usually expect (or perhaps should expect) to receive an immediate return in the form of salaries as officers or employees of the corporation, rather than in the form of dividends on their stock. Earnings of a close corporation are distributed in major part in salaries, bonuses and retirement benefits[.]” Hollis v. Hill, 232 F.3d 460, 467 (5th Cir.2000).

Having determined that part-ownership of an s-corporation does not preclude a finding of an employer-employee relationship under the FLSA, the court held that—taking the facts most favorably for plaintiff, the non-movant—plaintiff could meet the economic reality test and demonstrate that she was an employee subject to FLSA coverage. Thus, the court denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment on this ground.

Click Hess v. Madera Honda Suzuki to read the entire Order re: Motion for Summary Judgment or Summary Adjudication.

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D.Md.: Employer-Owner Could Not Share in Employee Tip Pool Under FLSA, Regardless of Extent of His Bartending Activities

Gionfriddo v. Jason Zink, LLC

In this case tipped employees challenged the validity of the employer’s tip pool, due to the participation of “non-tipped employees” in the tip pool.  The case was before the court on a variety of motions.  Of significance here, the parties moved by cross motions for summary judgment on the issue of whether the defendant’s tip pool arrangement was valid or not.  The court held that the owner-operators participation in the tip pool necessarily rendered it invalid, notwithstanding the fact that he regularly bartended side by side with his tipped employer bartenders.  In doing so, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that an owner-operator, who earns primarily tips, can transform himself into a tipped employee, such that he may permissibly participate in a tip pool with other tipped employees.

The court reasoned:

“As previously mentioned, the Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted to eliminate “labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers.” Pub.L. No. 75-718, 52 Stat. 1060 (1938) (codified as amended at 29 U.S.C. §§ 201 et seq.). To effectuate this aim, the FLSA requires that employees be paid a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(1)(c). An exception exists for “tipped employees.” “Tipped employees” are those employees that are “engaged in an occupation in which [they] customarily and regularly receive[ ] more than $30 a month in tips.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(t). Those employees are required to receive at least the minimum wage, but their employers are permitted to pay a direct wage of $2.13 per hour and then take a “tip credit” to meet the $7.25 per hour minimum wage requirement. 29 U.S.C. § 203(m). In other words, an employer satisfies the FLSA if he pays his tipped employees at least $2.13 per hour, and that wage, in conjunction with the tips they receive, make up at least the $7.25 per hour minimum wage. Employees are permitted to share tips through a tip pooling or tip splitting arrangement so long as each employee customarily receive more than $30 per month in tips. 29 C.F.R. § 531.54. However, “[i]f tipped employees are required to participate in a tip pool with other employees who do not customarily receive tips, then the tip pool is invalid and the employer is not permitted to take a ‘tip credit.’ “ Wajcman v. Inv. Corp. of Palm Beach, 620 F.Supp.2d 1353, 1356 n. 3 (S.D.Fla.2009) (citing 29 U.S.C. § 203(m)). In the present case, the bartenders at the Taverns participated in a collective tip pool that was divided up according to a formula that accounts for the hours worked by each bartender.

Mr. Zink worked as a bartender at the Taverns and concedes that he participated in the tip pool. Mr. Zink also concedes that he satisfies the definition of “employer” under Section 203(d) of the FLSA. See Defs.’ Cross Mot. Summ. J. at 24, ECF No. 51-1. Both parties agree that bartending is typically a tipped occupation. Where the parties disagree, however, is on the question of whether an “employer” may also be a “tipped employee” and receive a share of the tip pool. Defendants argue that despite his status as an employer, Mr. Zink is nevertheless permitted to share in the tip pool because he can simultaneously be an “employer” and a tipped “employee” under the FLSA. In other words, because Mr. Zink works as a bartender, a position that ordinarily receives tips, his status as an employer is immaterial to the FLSA analysis. Plaintiffs respond by arguing that allowing Mr. Zink to simultaneously benefit from the “tip credit” exception to the minimum wage requirements and at the same time personally receive tips would be completely contradictory to the purpose behind the FLSA. Plaintiffs maintain that Mr. Zink, as the sole owner of the Taverns, and the Plaintiffs’ employer, simply may not participate in a tip pool, and that to the extent he did participate in a tip pool, that tip pool is invalid under the FLSA. In short, the question before this Court is to what extent, if any, an owner-employer who also tends bar is permitted to receive tips from an employee tip pool.

This precise question is an issue of first impression in this District and in the Fourth Circuit, but not elsewhere. Every court that has considered the issue has unequivocally held that the FLSA expressly prohibits employers from participating in employee tip pools. “Congress, in crafting the tip credit provision of section 3(m) of the FLSA did not create a middle ground allowing an employer both to take the tip credit and share employees’ tips.” Chung v. New Silver Palace Restaurant, Inc., 246 F.Supp.2d 220, 230 (S.D.N.Y.2002); see also, e.g., Morgan v. SpeakEasy, LLC, 625 F.Supp.2d 632, 652 (N.D.Ill.2007) (quoting Chung, 246 F.Supp.2d at 230); Ayres v. 127 Restaurant Corp., 12 F.Supp.2d 305, 308-09 (S.D.N.Y.1998) (finding tip pool invalid as a result of general manager’s participation); Davis v. B & S, Inc., 38 F.Supp.2d 707, 714 (N.D.Ind.1998) (“an employer is not eligible to take the tip credit, and will be liable for reimbursing an employee the full minimum wage that employee would have earned, if the employer exercises control over a portion of the employee’s tips”).

Despite the clear weight of authority holding that employers may not participate in employee tip pools, Defendants seek to carve out a novel legal question where there is none. Essentially, Defendants argue that the analysis undergirding the cases holding that employers may not participate in employee tip pools is fundamentally flawed because those courts considered the issue under the faulty premise that a particular individual may only be an employer or a tipped employee, and not both. See Defs.’ Cross Mot. Summ. J. at 26-34, ECF No. 51-1; Defs.’ Reply at 16, ECF No. 58. Defendants rely on a textual interpretation of the FLSA, and argue that as a result of the Act’s broad definition of “employer,” it is also possible for an employer to be a tipped employee if that person participates in an activity that customarily receives tips, such as bartending. Id. In this regard, Defendants are mistaken-the cases holding that employers may not participate in employee tip pools do not take the position that under no circumstances will an “employer” be prohibited from participating in a tip pool-indeed, in close cases courts have gone to great lengths to determine whether a person who possesses some managerial control may be considered a “tipped employee” under the FLSA. For example, in Rudy v. Consol. Restaurant Cos., No. 3:08-CV-0904-L, 2010 WL 3565418 (N.D.Tex. Aug. 18, 2010), the district court considered whether maître d’s, who possessed some managerial authority over regular restaurant waiters, were properly considered “tipped employees” as a result of their significant interaction with customers. Id. at *4-9. Similarly, in Davis v. B & S, Incorporated, 38 F.Supp.2d 707, 714 (N.D.Ind.1998), the court found that a material fact existed with regard to whether a general manager could participate in a tip pool and declined to grant summary judgment to the employee. Id. at 717 (“because issues of fact remain as to whether [the general manager] was a ‘tipped employee’ with regard to his work with the disc jockeys, the validity of his participation in the tip pool … cannot be resolved as a matter of law”).”

Click Gionfriddo v. Jason Zink, LLC to read the entire order.

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