Tag Archives: Tip Credit

S.D.N.Y.: Existence of Arbitration Agreements for Some (Not All) Employees in Putative Class, Irrelevant re “Similarly Situated” Inquiry at Stage I

Romero v La Revise Associates, L.L.C.

This case was before the court on plaintiff’s motion for conditional certification. The case concerned allegations of impermissible tip credit, inadequate notice of same (under 203(m)), and other allegations of unpaid minimum wages. As further discussed here, defendants largely focused their attack on their twin contentions that the class proposed by plaintiff was not similarly situated to him and/or was too broad, because it contained English speakers (the plaintiff did not speak English) and employees and former employees who had signed arbitration agreements (the plaintiff did not). The court rejected both of these contentions, and reasoned that neither of these factors were appropriately considered at Stage I, the conditional certification stage.

Rejecting the defendant’s arguments in this regard, and holding that such issues were more properly reserved for Stage II or decertification analysis, the court reasoned:

The Court disagrees with defendants’ arguments. Case law imposes only a very limited burden on plaintiffs for purposes of proceeding as a conditional collective action. “[C]ourts have conditionally certified collective actions under the FLSA where plaintiffs, based on their firsthand observations, identify an approximate class of similarly situated individuals.” Hernandez v. Immortal Rise, Inc ., 2012 WL 4369746, at *4 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 24, 2012). Here, Romero has done just that, stating in his declaration that he “personally observed … Defendants’ policy to pay below the statutory minimum wage rate to all tipped employees,” that he and other tipped employees were compensated “all at rates below the minimum wage,” that he has never seen a tipped employee “receive proper notice explaining what a tip credit is,” that he and other tipped employees had to spend more than 20% of their daily time in non-tipped related activities, that he observed defendants engaging in time-shaving, that he observed when employees were sent home without call-in pay if the restaurant was not busy, and that he “personally observed that all non-exempt employees received the same form of wage and hour notice.” Romero Decl. ¶¶ 2–9. The affidavit of a plaintiff attesting to the existence of similarly situated plaintiffs is sufficient for the purposes of a motion to approve a collective action. See Cheng Chung Liang v. J.C. Broadway Restaurant, Inc., 2013 WL 2284882, at *2–3 (S.D.N.Y. May 23, 2013) (“For the purposes of this motion, … plaintiffs’ evidence—in the form of [one employee's] affidavit—is sufficient to establish that … there may be class members with whom he is similarly situated.”). Thus, Romero has made a sufficient showing that he and potential plaintiffs “were victims of a common policy or plan that violated the law.” Hoffman, 982 F.Supp. at 261.

Defendants’ principal argument is that because other employees signed arbitration agreements, Romero is not similarly situated to these other employees. Def. Mem. at 6–14. Defendants assert that the claims here are “properly pursued solely in arbitration, on an individual basis, by all of Ruhlmann’s employees who signed such an agreement” and therefore that “Ruhlmann’s employees are dissimilar from Plaintiff Romero and must pursue any claims they may have in an arbitral forum rather than federal court.” Def. Mem. at 8–9. Romero challenges both the enforceability and the validity of these arbitration agreements. He argues that the agreements are not enforceable because they violate the fee-shifting provision of the FLSA. Reply at 6–7. Romero also argues that defendants caused several of these agreements to be signed by coercion, that it is highly likely that several employees did not actually sign arbitration agreements, and that the validity of the signatures on several agreements are questionable. Reply at 7–9; Pl. May 31 Letter at 2. Additionally, he asserts that the agreements are unenforceable because they limit the statute of limitations on employees’ claims to six months and because they were not provided to employees in their native language. Pl. Aug. 20 Letter at 2–3.

As already noted, the question on a motion to proceed as a collective action is whether the proposed plaintiffs are similarly situated “with respect to their allegations that the law has been violated.” Young, 229 F.R.D. at 54; accord Meyers, 624 F.3d at 555 (in conditional collective action approval, question is whether the proposed plaintiffs are similarly situated to the named plaintiffs “with respect to whether a FLSA violation has occurred”). The arbitration agreements do not create any differences between Romero and the proposed plaintiffs with respect to Romero’s claims that defendants have violated the FLSA. That is, the validity vel non of the agreements is unrelated to any claims of a violation of the FLSA. Under this reasoning, the existence of differences between potential plaintiffs as to the arbitrability of their claims should not act as a bar to the collective action analysis. Indeed, courts have consistently held that the existence of arbitration agreements is “irrelevant” to collective action approval “because it raises a merits-based determination.” D’Antuono v. C & G of Groton, Inc., 2011 WL 5878045, at *4 (D.Conn. Nov. 23, 2011) (citing cases); accord Hernandez, 2012 WL 4369746, at *5;Salomon v. Adderly Indus., Inc., 847 F.Supp.2d 561, 565 (S.D.N.Y.2012) (“The relevant issue here, however, is not whether Plaintiffs and [potential opt-in plaintiffs] were identical in all respects, but rather whether they were subjected to a common policy to deprive them of overtime pay ….”) (alteration in original) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).

In support of its argument that the existence of arbitration agreements merits denial of collective action approval, defendants make arguments about the eventual enforceability of the arbitration agreements and rely on cases in which courts granted motions to dismiss and compel arbitration because of such agreements. See Def. Mem. at 6–7. Critically, defendants do not even address the cases holding that consideration of the validity of arbitration agreements is inappropriate in the context of a motion to approval an FLSA collective action. The situation here is thus akin to the situation in Raniere v. Citigroup Inc., 827 F.Supp.2d 294 (S.D .N.Y.2011), rev’d on other grounds, 2013 WL 4046278 (2d Cir.2013), in which the court remarked:

Defendants have failed to cite a single authority finding that due to the possibility that members of the collective [action] might be compelled to bring their claims in an arbitral forum, certification is not appropriate. Such arguments are best suited to the second certification stage, where, on a fuller record, the court will examine whether the plaintiffs and opt-ins are in fact similarly situated.

Id. at 324.

Defendants’ strongest argument is that “[i]t would be a waste of judicial and party resource to force defendants” to send notice to individuals ultimately bound to arbitrate claims. Def. June 4 Letter at 3. But the notice requirement is not unduly burdensome in this case and the defendants’ proposal essentially amounts to an invitation for the Court to adjudicate the validity of the arbitration agreements. But, as already noted, case law makes clear that this sort of merits-based determination should not take place at the first stage of the conditional collective action approval process. Plaintiff has raised at least colorable arguments to support the invalidity or unenforceability of the arbitration agreements, some of which are fact-intensive. Case law holds, however, that issues of fact surrounding arbitration agreements are properly resolved at the second stage of the two-step inquiry. D’Antuono, 2011 WL 5878045, at *5; accord Salomon, 847 F.Supp.2d at 565 (“[A] fact-intensive inquiry is inappropriate at the notice stage, as Plaintiffs are seeking only conditional certification.”) (citing cases); Ali v. Sugarland Petroleum, 2009 WL 5173508, at *4 (S.D.Tex. Dec. 22, 2009) (“The Court will make the determination [of whether to exclude those who signed arbitration agreement from the class] at the conclusion of discovery, when it may properly analyze the validity of the arbitration agreement.”). Defendants not only fail to distinguish these cases, they do not even proffer any argument as to why the reasoning of these cases is wrong.

Defendants have submitted evidence contradicting Romero’s claim that he is similarly situated to other employees with respect to other aspects of his claims, such as his understanding of the tip credit. See Collin Decl. ¶ 9. However, “the two-stage certification process exists to help develop the factual record, not put an end to an action on an incomplete one.” Griffith v. Fordham Fin. Mgmt., Inc., 2013 WL 2247791, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. May 22, 2013) (granting collective action approval where defendant had put forth “contravening evidence”) (emphasis omitted) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). For these reasons, Romero’s motion for conditional approval of a collective action is granted.

Click Romero v La Revise Associates, L.L.C. to read the court’s entire Opinion & Order.

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D.Colo.: “Expeditor” Proper Participant in Restaurant’s Tip Pool

Giuffre v. Marys Lake Lodge, LLC

This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. At issue was whether its tip pool- which included its “expeditors”- complied with the FLSA. Holding that the defendant-restaurant was entitled to include the expeditor in the tip pool, the court reasoned that: (1) the expeditor was properly deemed a “front-of-the-house” employee with requisite duties to be deemed a “tipped employee;” (2) the expeditor was not an “employer” under the FLSA; and (3) the defendant had properly put plaintiff on notice of its intention to take the tip credit. Thus, the court granted the defendant’s motion.

Briefly discussing the chief issue of interest, the court explained:

MLL utilized the expeditor position on busy nights to assist in its restaurant. Defendants contend that the expeditor is a “front of the house” position that falls within the definition of a “tipped employee” for purposes of the FLSA, thus barring plaintiff’s claim that the tip credit is invalidated by the sharing requirement. See Roussell v. Brinker Int’l, Inc., 441 F. App’x 222, 231 (5th Cir.2011) (“Customarily, front-of-the-house staff like servers and bartenders receive tips. Back-of-the-house staff like cooks and dishwashers do not, and thus cannot participate in a mandatory tip pool.”). In arguing about whether the expeditor could share in tips, the parties focus on the position’s level of interaction with customers. See id. (“Direct customer interaction is relevant because it is one of the factors distinguishing these two categories of workers.”); see Townsend v.. BG–Meridian, Inc., 2005 WL 2978899, at *6 (W.D.Okla. Nov. 7, 2005) (“The cases that have considered whether a given occupation falls within the definition of a tipped employee have focused on the level of customer interaction involved in that occupation.”).

Plaintiff admits that, during the time he worked at MLL, the expeditor position was usually filled by Mikilynn Wollett. See Docket No. 64 at 3, ¶ 8; Docket No. 92 at 3, ¶ 8. Ms. Wollett descibes the expeditor as a “front of the house” position with the following responsibilities: “checking the plates as they come out from the kitchen cooks to make sure they match the tickets; placing the food on the serving trays; taking the serving trays to the tables and delivering the food to customers; checking in with customers about their meals and exchanging food if the customer has [a] complaint; refilling beverages; chatting with customers; and assisting the wait staff in any other way necessary.” Docket No. 64 –1 at 2, ¶¶ 1–2. According to Ms. Wollett, the “position is very similar to that of a waiter, and the attire is nearly identical, but the expeditor/food runner does not take the customers’ orders.” Id. at 1, ¶ 2.

Curiously, the court appears to have resolved factual issues with regard to the alleged duties of the expeditor and simply rejected plaintiff’s proffered evidence in that regard. As such, the court seemed to imply that with a stronger factual record- supported by testimony other than that of the named-plaintiff alone- it may have reached a different result, at least at the summary judgment stage. Thus, it’s not clear how much precedential value this case will have, if any.

Click Giuffre v. Marys Lake Lodge, LLC to read the entire Order.

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Courts Support DOL Positions re: Tip-Credit Regs and Classification of Mortgage Loan Officers

More so than any recent Department of Labor in memory, the DOL’s positions have come under attack by several major industries largely under the battle cry that they amount to unfair or “over” regulation. Although the Supreme Court recently handed the pharmaceutical industry a major victory in its industry-wide litigation regarding the outside sales exemption’s application to its so-called pharmaceutical reps or PSRs, the DOL and workers come out on the winning end in 2 district-level cases, both challenging recent DOL pronouncements of its policies. In the first, the DOL’s recent amendment to the rules governing when an employer may take the tip-credit with respect to tipped employees came under fire. In the second, the Mortgage Bankers Association challenged the DOL’s recent Administrative Interpretation 2010–1 in which the DOL took the position that Mortgage Loan Officers (MLOs) performing typical MLO duties were non-exempt.

National Restaurant Ass’n v. Solis

In the first case, the National Restaurant Association, Counsel of State Restaurant Associations, Inc., and National Federation of Independent Businesses sued the Secretary of Labor, Hilda L. Solis, in her official capacity as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor; Nancy Leppink, in her official capacity as Acting Administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor; and the U.S. Department of Labor (“the Department” or “DOL”).

The rule at issue, 29 C.F.R. § 531.59(b), which went into effect on May 5, 2011, provided:

Pursuant to section 3(m), an employer is not eligible to take the tip credit unless it has informed its tipped employees in advance of the employer’s use of the tip credit of the provisions of section 3(m) of the Act, i.e.: The amount of the cash wage that is to be paid to the tipped employee by the employer; the additional amount by which the wages of the tipped employee are increased on account of the tip credit claimed by the employer, which amount may not exceed the value of the tips actually received by the employee; that all tips received by the tipped employee must be retained by the employee except for a valid tip pooling arrangement limited to employees who customarily and regularly receive tips; and that the tip credit shall not apply to any employee who has not been informed of these requirements in this section.

In its challenge to the regulation, the restaurant tradegroup-Plaintiffs alleged that the DOL violated the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), 5 U.S.C. §§ 611, 702 (2006), when DOL promulgated a new regulation, 29 C.F.R. § 531.59(b) (2011), concerning an employer’s obligation to inform tipped employees of the “tip credit” requirements of the Federal Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201219 (2006). The parties filed cross-motions seeking judgment in their respective favor. The court held that because the agency complied with the APA notice requirements when it conducted this rulemaking exercise, and the public was fully and specifically informed of the subject matter under consideration, the DOL was within its rulemaking powers when it promulgated the new tip-credit notice rules.

Click National Restaurant Ass’n v. Solis to read the entire Memorandum Opinion.

Mortgage Bankers Ass’n v. Solis

In the second case, the Mortgage Bankers Association, a trade group for mortgage bankers challenged the DOL’s issuance, in 2010, of Administrative Interpretation, the 2010 AI, which expressly withdrew a DOL’s 2006 Opinion Letter, regarding the exempt status of typical Mortgage Loan Officers (“MLOs”). Whereas, previously the DOL had taken the position that MLOs, performing typical duties of MLO positions met the requirements for application of the administrative exemption, the 2010 Administrative Interpretation took the opposite view- that typical MLOs are non-exempt.

Discussing the AI, the court explained:

The 2010 AI relies on a District of Minnesota decision, Casas v. Conseco Finance Corp., No. Civ.00–1512, 2002 WL 507059 (D.Minn. March 31, 2002) in addition to several other cases, as support for its position that mortgage loan officers are non-exempt employees. Id. at 105. In Casas, loan originators asserted they were entitled to overtime compensation from the defendants under the FLSA, requiring the court to decide whether the plaintiffs were exempt from FLSA overtime pay provisions. The court found that because “Conseco’s primary business purpose [was] to design, create and sell home lending products,” the mortgage loan officers’ primary duty was to sell those lending products on a day-to-day basis, not ” ‘the running of [the] business [itself]‘ or determining its overall course or policies.” Casas, 2002 WL 507059, at *9 (citation omitted) (alterations in original). Relying on the ruling in Casas, the 2010 AI reasons that “because Conseco’s loan officers’ duties were ‘selling loans directly to individual customers, one loan at a time,’ ” the administrative exemption did not apply to them. A.R. at 105 (Administrator’s Interpretation No.2010–01) (internal citation omitted). The 2010 AI further notes that the 2004 amended regulations examined the difference between mortgage loan officers who spend the majority of their time selling mortgage products to consumers, like the Casas plaintiffs, as compared to those who “promot[e] the employer’s financial products generally, decid[e] on an advertising budget and techniques, run[ ] an office, hir[e] staff and set[ ] their pay, service [ ] existing customers …, and advis[e] customers.” Id. at 105 (citing 69 Fed.Reg. at 22145–46). The 2010 AI concluded that in order for mortgage loan officers to be properly classified as exempt employees, their primary duties must be administrative in nature. Id. at 105.

Relying on the facts that a significant portion of mortgage loan officers’ compensation is composed of commissions from sales, that their job performance is evaluated based on their sales volume, and that much of the non-sales work performed by the officers is completed in furtherance of their sales duties, the 2010 AI concluded “that a mortgage loan officer’s primary duty is making sales.” Id. at 106–07. And because their primary duty is making sales, the 2010 AI further concludes that “mortgage loan officers perform the production[, not the administrative,] work of their employers.” Id. at 107.

After concluding that the work of mortgage loan officers is not related to the general business operation of their employers, the 2010 AI considered another factor that could provide the basis for finding that mortgage loan officers are subject to the administrative exemption. Id. at 108. The AI states that “[t]he administrative exemption can also apply if the employee’s primary duty is directly related to the management or general business operations of the employer’s customers.Id. In making this assessment, the 2010 AI notes that “it is necessary to focus on the identity of the customer.” Id. The 2010 AI finds that “work for an employer’s customers does not qualify for the administrative exemption where the customers are individuals seeking advice for their personal needs, such as people seeking mortgages for their homes.” Id. However, it recognizes that a mortgage loan officer “might qualify under the administrative exemption” if the customer that the officer is working with “is a business seeking advice about, for example, a mortgage to purchase land for a new manufacturing plant, to buy a building for office space, or to acquire a warehouse for storage of finished goods.” Id. Nevertheless, the 2010 AI concludes that the typical mortgage loan officers’ “primary duty is making sales for the employer [to homeowners], and because homeowners do not have management or general business operations, a typical mortgage loan officer’s primary duty is not related to the management or general business operations of the employer’s customers.” Id. at 109.

Finally, the 2010 AI took exception with the 2006 Opinion Letter’s apparent assumption “that the example provided in 29 C.F.R. § 541.203(b) creates an alternative standard for the administrative exemption for employees in the financial services industry.” Id. Rather, the 2010 AI states that 29 C.F.R. § 541.203(b) merely illustrates an example of an employee who might otherwise qualify for the exemption based on “the requirements set forth in 29 C.F.R. § 541.200.” Id. Thus, the 2010 AI clarifies that “the administrative exemption is only applicable to employees that meet the requirements set forth in 29 C.F.R. § 541.200.” Id. In providing this clarification, the 2010 AI states, “[t]he fact example at 29 C.F.R. § 541.203(b) is not an alternative test, and its guidance cannot result in it ‘swallowing’ the requirements of 29 C.F.R. § 541.200.” FN4
Id.

In summation, the DOL through the issuance of the 2010 AI explicitly withdrew the 2006 Opinion Letter “[b]ecause of its misleading assumption and selective and narrow analysis[.]” Id. Before taking this action, the DOL did not utilize the APA’s notice and comment process. Compl. ¶¶ 32–33.

The Mortgage Bankers Association relied on two different theories in seeking that the court strike down the AI at issue. First, relying on Paralyzed Veterans, 117 F.3d at 586, the plaintiff argues that once an agency issues an authoritative interpretation of its own regulation, it must utilize the notice and comment process if it desires to modify that interpretation. Second, the Mortgage Bankers Association argued that the 2010 AI does not comport with the 2004 regulations and is therefore “arbitrary, capricious, an abused of discretion, and otherwise not in accordance with law.”

With regard to the first argument, the rejected it, noting that ” seven courts of appeals have held that the notice and comment provisions found in section 553 of the APA do not apply to interpretative rules.” Further, the court held that the case did not fit within the limited recognized exceptions to that general rule. Similarly, the court held that the DOL’s interpretation of its own 2004 white collar regulations was not inconsistent and therefore not arbitrary and capricious. Thus, the court granted the DOL summary judgment, in part, and denied the Mortgage Bankers Association’s similar motion, and upheld the AI.

Click Mortgage Bankers Ass’n v. Solis to read the entire Memorandum Opinion.

 

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S.D.Ohio: Inclusion Of Maître D’ In Tip Pool Not Necessarily Illegal; Evidence Demonstrated Maître D’ Lacked Management Duties To Make Him An FLSA Employer, If He Did Not Hire Or Fire

Strange v. Wade

This case was before the court on plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment regarding a variety of issues.  Although the court granted the motion in some respects, as discussed here, it denied the motion with respect to plaintiff’s claim that defendant’s inclusion of the maître d’ in its tip pool was illegal and invalidated the tip pool.  The court held that on the record before it, it was not possible to conclude that the maître d’ was a management employee rather than a properly tipped service employee.

Discussing this issue the court reasoned:

“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 Place Rest., Inc., 246 F.Supp.2d 220, 230 (S.D.N.Y.2002); Wajcman v. Investment Corp. of Palm Beach, No. 07-80912-CIV, 2008 WL 783741, *3 (S.D.Fla. March 20, 2008) (“The theory here is that employees who exercise substantial managerial authority over the day to day operations of the business are functionally the ‘employers’ themselves”). Where employers participate in a tip pool, the pool is invalid. See Ayres v. 127 Restaurant Corp., 12 F.Supp.2d 305 (S.D.N.Y.1998) (tip pool violated FLSA where general manager, who had authority to suspend, hire and fire employees and analyze payroll costs, was allowed to participate in the pool).

Plaintiff argues that Pigall’s tip pool was invalid because Brown was a manager and shared in the pool. (Doc. 22-1.) In support of its argument, Plaintiff points to Brown’s guaranteed compensation, his participation in the opening of the restaurant, his authority to train, schedule and supervise the wait staff, and his authority to hire and fire employees. (Id.) Plaintiff cites to the depositions of Brown and de Cavel, wherein both men testified that Brown was considered part of the restaurant’s management team. (de Cavel Dep. 50:13-14; Brown Dep. 59:17-22.) These facts, Plaintiff argues, unequivocally establish that Brown was an employer for purposes of the FLSA. See Ayres, 12 F.Supp.2d at 307-08 (general manager of restaurant, who had full authority to suspend or terminate employees, supervised wait staff, made hiring decisions, assumed responsibility for budget and received weekly salary of $2000 was not an employee who “customarily and regularly received tips” under the FLSA).

Defendants agree that Brown participated in the tip pool but argue that he was not a manager and, thus, the tip pool was not invalid by virtue of the fact that Brown participated in it. Defendants point to Dole v. Continental Cuisine, Inc., 751 F.Supp. 799 (E.D.Ark.1990), to support their contention that Brown cannot be considered an employer under the Act. In Continental Cuisine, the individual in question was the maître d’ of the restaurant alleged to have violated the FLSA. 751 F.Supp. at 802-03. The maître d’ was responsible for setting up the dining room, seating and greeting customers, serving the first drink to customers, scheduling shifts for the wait staff, interviewing applicants for positions as waiters and waitresses, and recommending that persons be hired or fired. Id. at 800. Because the maître d’ did not have final authority to hire and fire employees, set wages, control restaurant operations, or control payroll, he was not considered an employer for purposes of the FLSA. Id. at 803. Defendants argue that, similar to the maître d’ in Continental Cuisine, Brown did not have the requisite managerial authority to be considered an employer under the Act.

The Court agrees with Defendants that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Brown is an employer under the FLSA. Although the parties appear to agree on many of the duties that Brown performs, there is conflicting testimony regarding whether Brown had full authority to hire and fire workers and how much control Brown exercised at the restaurant. For example, although Brown testified that he made final hiring decisions, he acknowledged that he was “not at liberty to hire someone” without de Cavel first meeting with that person. (Brown dep. 53:3-54:15.) Meanwhile, de Cavel testified that Brown was part of his management team and “fire[d] a few people without [his] agreement” (de Cavel dep. 50:13-14; 20:9-10). Conversely, Brown testified that he had no responsibility “for any decision that involved spending money.” (Brown dep. 51:19-20.) Based on the current record, and construing all facts in favor of Defendants, the Court believes that genuine issues of material fact preclude summary judgment on this issue. Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment regarding the validity of the restaurant’s tip pool is DENIED.”

To read the entire decision, click here.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  In a recent decision going one step further, a court in the Northern District of Texas held on similar evidence, that as a matter of law, the inclusion of a maître d’ did not render a tip pool illegal.  Rudy v. Consolidated Restaurant Companies, Inc., 2010 WL 3565418 (N.D.Tex. Aug. 18, 2010).

It is clear from both of these decisions that while there is room for the argument that inclusion of a maître d’ may render an otherwise valid tip pool invalid, it is a very fact intensive issue and plaintiff attorneys would be wise to fully develop their factual record on issues of hiring/firing powers if they prosecute these claims.

Click here, to read more about the rules, regulations and laws applicable to Tipped Employees.

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9th Cir.: Tip Pool That Required Tipped Employees To Share Tips With Non-Tipped Employees Did Not Violate FLSA, Because Restaurant Paid Tipped Employees Cash Wages In Excess Of Minimum Wage And Did Not Claim Tip Credit

Cumbie v. Woody Woo, Inc.

This case was before the Ninth Circuit to decide whether a restaurant violates the Fair Labor Standards Act, when, despite paying a cash wage greater than the minimum wage, it requires its wait staff to participate in a “tip pool” that redistributes some of their tips to the kitchen staff.  The Court ruled that such a tip sharing arrangement does not violate the FLSA.

Describing the tip pool at issue, the Court said, “[Plaintiff] worked as a waitress at the Vita Café in Portland, Oregon, which is owned and operated by Woody Woo, Inc., Woody Woo II, Inc., and Aaron Woo (collectively, “Woo”). Woo paid its servers a cash wage at or exceeding Oregon’s minimum wage, which at the time was $2.10 more than the federal minimum wage. In addition to this cash wage, the servers received a portion of their daily tips. Woo required its servers to contribute their tips to a “tip pool” that was redistributed to all restaurant employees .  The largest portion of the tip pool (between 55% and 70%) went to kitchen staff (e.g., dishwashers and cooks), who are not customarily tipped in the restaurant industry. The remainder (between 30% and 45%) was returned to the servers in proportion to their hours worked.”

The Court below dismissed Plaintiff’s Complaint on Defendant’s 12(b)(6) Motion, holding that Plaintiff failed to state a claim for minimum wages, because she acknowledges she was paid in excess of minimum wage, but challenged the legality of Defendant’s tip pool nonetheless.  This appeal ensued.

“On appeal, [Plaintiff] argue[d] that because Woo’s tip pool included employees who are not ‘customarily and regularly tipped employees,’ 29 U.S.C. § 203(m), it was ‘invalid’ under the FLSA, and Woo was therefore required to pay her the minimum wage plus all of her tips. Woo argue[d] that Cumbie’s reading of the FLSA is correct only vis-à-vis employers who take a ‘tip credit’ toward their minimum-wage obligation. See id.”  Defendant, argued that, “[b]ecause [it] did not claim a ‘tip credit,’ it contends that the tip-pooling arrangement was permissible so long as it paid her the minimum wage, which it did.”

Affirming the lower Court’s decision, finding the pay policy at issue to be legal, the Ninth Circuit discussed the applicable law:

“Williams establishes the default rule that an arrangement to turn over or to redistribute tips is presumptively valid. Our task, therefore, is to determine whether the FLSA imposes any “statutory interference” that would invalidate Woo’s tip-pooling arrangement. The question presented is one of first impression in this court.

Under the FLSA, employers must pay their employees a minimum wage. See29 U.S.C. § 206(a). The FLSA’s definition of “wage” recognizes that under certain circumstances, employers of “tipped employees” may include part of such employees’ tips as wage payments. See id.§ 203(m). The FLSA provides in relevant part:

In determining the wage an employer is required to pay a tipped employee, the amount paid such employee by the employee’s employer shall be an amount equal to- (1) the cash wage paid such employee which for purposes of such determination shall be not less than the cash wage required to be paid such an employee on August 20, 1996; and (2) an additional amount on account of the tips received by such employee which amount is equal to the difference between the wage specified in paragraph (1) and the wage in effect under section 206(a)(1) of this title.

The additional amount on account of tips may not exceed the value of the tips actually received by an employee. The preceding 2 sentences shall not apply with respect to any tipped employee unless such employee has been informed by the employer of the provisions of this subsection, and all tips received by such employee have been retained by the employee, except that this subsection shall not be construed to prohibit the pooling of tips among employees who customarily and regularly receive tips. Id.

We shall unpack this dense statutory language sentence by sentence. The first sentence states that an employer must pay a tipped employee an amount equal to (1) a cash wage of at least $2.13, plus (2) an additional amount in tips equal to the federal minimum wage minus such cash wage.  That is, an employer must pay a tipped employee a cash wage of at least $2.13, but if the cash wage is less than the federal minimum wage, the employer can make up the difference with the employee’s tips (also known as a “tip credit”). The second sentence clarifies that the difference may not be greater than the actual tips received. Therefore, if the cash wage plus tips are not enough to meet the minimum wage, the employer must “top up” the cash wage. Collectively, these two sentences provide that an employer may take a partial tip credit toward its minimum-wage obligation.  See29 U.S.C. §§ 203(m), 206(a)(1) (1996).

The third sentence states that the preceding two sentences do not apply (i.e., the employer may not take a tip credit) unless two conditions are met. First, the employer must inform the employee of the tip-credit provisions in section 203(m). Second, the employer must allow the employee to keep all of her tips, except when the employee participates in a tip pool with other customarily tipped employees.

Cumbie argues that under section 203(m), an employee must be allowed to retain all of her tips-except in the case of a “valid” tip pool involving only customarily tipped employees-regardless of whether her employer claims a tip credit. Essentially, she argues that section 203(m) has overruled Williams, rendering tip-redistribution agreements presumptively invalid. However, we cannot reconcile this interpretation with the plain text of the third sentence, which imposes conditions on taking a tip credit and does not state freestanding requirements pertaining to all tipped employees. A statute that provides that a person must do X in order toachieve Y does not mandate that a person must do X, period.

If Congress wanted to articulate a general principle that tips are the property of the employee absent a “valid” tip pool, it could have done so without reference to the tip credit. “It is our duty to give effect, if possible, to every clause and word of a statute.” United States v. Menasche, 348 U.S. 528, 538-39 (1955) (internal quotation marks omitted). Therefore, we decline to read the third sentence in such a way as to render its reference to the tip credit, as well as its conditional language and structure, superfluous. 

Here, there is no question that Woo’s tip pool included non-customarily tipped employees, and that Cumbie did not retain all of her tips because of her participation in the pool. Accordingly, Woo was not entitled to take a tip credit, nor did it. See Richard v. Marriott Corp., 549 F.2d 303, 305 (4th Cir.1977) (“[I]f the employer does not follow the command of the statute, he gets no [tip] credit.”). Since Woo did not take a tip credit, we perceive no basis for concluding that Woo’s tippooling arrangement violated section 203(m).

Recognizing that section 203(m) is of no assistance to her, Cumbie disavowed reliance on it in her reply brief and at oral argument, claiming instead that “[t]he rule against forced transfer of tips actually originates in the minimum wage section of the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 206.” Section 206 provides that “[e]very employer shall pay to each of his employees … wages” at the prescribed minimum hourly rate. Id. § 206(a).

While section 206 does not mention tips, let alone tip pools, Cumbie maintains that a Department of Labor (“DOL”) regulation elucidates the meaning of the term “pay” in such a way as to prohibit Woo’s tip-pooling arrangement. She refers to the regulation which requires that the minimum wage be “paid finally and unconditionally or ‘free and clear,’ “ and forbids any “ ‘kick [ ]-back’ … to the employer or to another person for the employer’s benefit the whole or part of the wage delivered to the employee.” 29 C.F.R. § 531.35. The “free and clear” regulation provides as an example of a prohibited kick-back a requirement that an employee purchase tools for the job, where such purchase “cuts into the minimum or overtime wages required to be paid him under the Act.” Id.

According to Cumbie, her forced participation in the “invalid” tip pool constituted an indirect kick-back to the kitchen staff for Woo’s benefit, in violation of the free-and-clear regulation. As she sees it, the money she turned over to the tip pool brought her cash wage below the federal minimum in the same way as the tools in the regulation’s example. The Secretary of Labor agrees, asserting that “if the tipped employees did not receive the full federal minimum wage plus all tips received, they cannot be deemed under federal law to have received the minimum wage ‘free and clear,’ and the money diverted into the invalid tip pool is an improper deduction from wages that violates section [20]6 of the Act.”

Cumbie acknowledges that the applicability of the “free and clear” regulation hinges on “whether or not the tips belong to the servers to whom they are given.” This question brings us back to section 203(m), which we have already determined does not alter the default rule in Williams that tips belong to the servers to whom they are given only “in the absence of an explicit contrary understanding” that is not otherwise prohibited. 315 U.S. at 397. Hence, whether a server owns her tips depends on whether there existed an agreement to redistribute her tips that was not barred by the FLSA.

Here, such an agreement existed by virtue of the tippooling arrangement. The FLSA does not restrict tip pooling when no tip credit is taken. Therefore, only the tips redistributed to Cumbie from the pool ever belonged to her, and her contributions to the pool did not, and could not, reduce her wages below the statutory minimum. We reject Cumbie and the Secretary’s interpretation of the regulation as plainly erroneous and unworthy of any deference, see Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452, 461 (1997), and conclude that Woo did not violate section 206 by way of the “free and clear” regulation.

Finally, Cumbie argues against the result we reach because “[a]s a practical matter, it nullifies legislation passed by Congress.” Her argument, as we understand it, is that Woo is functionally taking a tip credit by using a tip-pooling arrangement to subsidize the wages of its non-tipped employees. The money saved in wage payments is more money in Woo’s pocket, which is financially equivalent to confiscating Cumbie’s tips via a section 203(m) tip credit (with the added benefit that this “de facto” tip credit allows Woo to bypass section 203(m)‘s conditions).

Even if Cumbie were correct, “we do not find [this] possibility … so absurd or glaringly unjust as to warrant a departure from the plain language of the statute.” Ingalls Shipbuilding, Inc. v. Dir., Office of Workers’ Comp. Programs, 519 U.S. 248, 261 (1997). The purpose of the FLSA is to protect workers from “substandard wages and oppressive working hours.” Barrentine v. Ark.-Best Freight Sys., Inc., 450 U.S. 728, 739 (1981) (citing 29 U.S.C. § 202(a)). Our conclusion that the FLSA does not prohibit Woo’s tip-pooling arrangement does not thwart this purpose. Cumbie received a wage that was far greater than the federally prescribed minimum, plus a substantial portion of her tips. Naturally, she would prefer to receive all of her tips, but the FLSA does not create such an entitlement where no tip credit is taken. Absent an ambiguity or an irreconcilable conflict with another statutory provision, “we will not alter the text in order to satisfy the policy preferences” of Cumbie and amici. Barnhart v. Sigmon Coal Co., Inc., 534 U.S. 438, 462 (2002).

The Supreme Court has made it clear that an employment practice does not violate the FLSA unless the FLSA prohibits it. Christensen v. Harris County, 529 U.S. 576, 588 (2000). Having concluded that nothing in the text of the FLSA purports to restrict employee tip-pooling arrangements when no tip credit is taken, we perceive no statutory impediment to Woo’s practice. Accordingly, the judgment of the district court is affirmed.”

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