Tag Archives: Tipped Minimum Wage

D.Nev.: FLSA Precluded Nevada State Law Class Action

Daprizio v. Harrah’s Las Vegas, Inc.

This case was before the Court on Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs’ state law claims on several grounds.  As discussed here, the Court ruled that the FLSA precludes Nevada State Law Class Action claims. 

“The Court finds that the FLSA precludes the state law class action. The conflict between the two mass action schemes involves the mechanisms by which parties become members of a suit. Defendant argues that “allowing the parallel claims to be pursued concurrently would allow the application of the collective action opt-out mechanism of Rule 23, invoked by the state law claims, to govern what Congress intended to be a more limited situation of opt-in collective action [under the FLSA].” (Mot. Dismiss 13, ECF No. 2). The Court agrees. The FLSA states that, “No employee shall be a party plaintiff to any such action unless he gives consent in writing to become such a party and such consent is filed in the court in which such action is brought.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). This is the “opt-in” provision used for FLSA collective actions, under which a putative class member is not bound unless he or she affirmatively opts in to the suit. Gardenvariety class actions, however, are governed by Rule 23, which states that “the court will exclude from the class any member who requests exclusion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(c)(2)(B)(v). This is the “opt-out” provision, under which members of a certified class must affirmatively opt out of the class or be bound by the class action litigation. This divergence between the respective opt-in and opt-out procedures of a FLSA collective action and a garden-variety class action results in a class action under state labor laws being preempted by the FLSA’s collective action scheme.

The Ninth Circuit has based its preemption analysis on the Supreme Court’s three categories: (1) express preemption-“where Congress explicitly defines the extent to which its enactments preempt state law”; (2) field preemption-“where state law attempts to regulate conduct in a field that Congress intended the federal law exclusively to occupy”; and (3) conflict preemption-“where it is impossible to comply with both state and federal requirements, or where state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.”  Williamson v. Gen. Dynamics Corp., 208 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th Cir.2000) (citing Indus. Truck Ass’n, Inc. v. Henry, 125 F.3d 1305, 1309 (9th Cir.1997) (citing English v. Gen. Elec. Co., 496 U.S. 72, 78-80 (1990))). “Consideration of the issues arising under the Supremacy Clause ‘start[s] with the assumption that the historical police powers of the states [are] not to be superseded by … Federal Act unless that [is] the clear and manifest purpose of Congress.’ “ Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc., 505 U.S. 504, 516 (1992) (quoting Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp., 331 U.S. 218 (1947)). “Preemption issues must be decided on a case-by-case basis.”   Williamson, 208 F.3d at 1155.

A court of this District has ruled that the FLSA precludes state-law labor class actions. In Williams v. Trendwest Resorts, Inc., the court found that “the class action mechanisms of the FLSA and Rule 23 are incompatible. It would be inappropriate to permit Plaintiff’s attempt to circumvent the restrictive opt-in requirement of the FLSA….” No. 2:05-CV-0605-RCJ-LRL, 2007 WL 2429149 at *4 (D.Nev. Aug. 20, 2007) (Jones, J.). In Trendwest Resorts, the defendant’s employees were attempting to recover overtime wages under the FLSA as well as under California state labor law. The court pointed out that notice was sent to 1578 employees of Trendwest Resorts in California and Nevada, but only 194 individuals had opted into the putative class. Id. Had Rule 23 been implemented, the other 1100 California employees who failed to affirmatively opt in would have been brought into the case. Id . In the present case, there is only one complaining party and an unknown number of potential class members. “[T]he policy behind requiring FLSA plaintiffs to opt in to the class would largely be thwarted if a plaintiff were permitted to back door the shoehorning in of unnamed parties through the vehicle of calling upon similar state statutes that lack such an opt-in requirement.” Leuthold v.. Destination Am., Inc., 224 F.R.D. 462, 470 (N.D.Cal.2004) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

Plaintiff argues that no preemption issue exists since none of the three types of preemption apply. Express and field preemption are not in dispute since neither side alleges that the federal law expressly preempts state law or that labor disputes are strictly a federal issue. Conflict preemption, Plaintiff argues, also does not apply because the “Nevada overtime and minimum wage claims do not ‘stand as an obstacle’ to Congress’ purpose in enacting the FLSA.” (Resp. Mot. Dismiss 9:11-12, ECF No. 14). In support of this argument, Plaintiff points to the “savings clause” of the FLSA which allows states to enact wage and hour laws more favorable to workers than the minimum requirements of the FLSA and quotes Williamson, which states that, “the FLSA’s ‘savings clause’ is evidence that Congress did not intend to preempt the entire field.” 208 F.3d at 1151 (citing 29 U.S.C. § 218(a)). This argument is unpersuasive for two reasons. First, the savings clause of the FLSA that Plaintiff mentions deals expressly with minimum wages and child labor laws. The language leaves little room for broader inference and probably no room for broader application. Second, the quote from Williamson Plaintiff mentions explicitly refers to field preemption, a type of preemption Plaintiff explicitly disclaims. The savings clause simply means that plaintiffs may bring FLSA collective actions based on violations of state wage and hour laws that are stricter than federal requirements. But the fact that Congress permits suit based on a state’s wage and hour requirements that are stricter than those in the FLSA does nothing to ameliorate the conflict between the FLSA opt-in provision and the Rule 23 opt-out provision.

Because of the tension between the opt-in procedure of an FLSA collective action and the opt-out procedure of a garden-variety Rule 23 class action, a conflict exists. See, e.g., Rose v. Wildflower Bread Co., No. CV09-1348-PHX-JAT, 2010 WL 1781011, at *3 (D.Ariz. May 4, 2010). The Ninth Circuit has stated even more broadly in dicta that “[c]laims that are directly covered by the FLSA (such as overtime and retaliation disputes) must be brought under the FLSA.” Williamson, 208 F.3d at 1154. This could be read as preempting even Plaintiff’s individual claim, but that question is not before the Court.”

There continues to be a rift between various circuits (and even within circuits) as to whether so-called hybrid FLSA Collective Actions may co-exist with State Law Class claims.  Stay tuned to see whether the Supreme Court will ultimately weigh in.

To read the entire decision, click here.

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D.D.C.: High-Profile D.C. Chef Is An “Employer” And Personally Liable For Wage And Hour Violations At His Restaurant

Ventura v. Bebo Foods, Inc.

This case, concerning alleged Wage and Hour violations under the FLSA and the DCWPCL was before the Court on two issues: (1) whether defendant Roberto Donna (“Donna”) was personally liable for minimum wage and overtime violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and the D.C. Wage Payment and Collection Law (“DCWPCL”); and (2) damages, if any, as to the corporate defendants.  The Court held that Donna was personally liable for such violations, but deferred on the remaining issues.

Discussing the personal liability of Donna, the Court reasoned:

“The Court concludes that Donna is personally liable under the FLSA and DCWPCL for minimum wage, overtime, and equal pay violations because he is an employer under both the FLSA and DCWPCL. To be liable for violations of the FLSA, the defendant must be an “employer.” 29 U.S.C. §§ 206-207 (2010). The FLSA defines “employer” to include “any person acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee.” 29 U.S .C. § 203(d). This definition is broadly construed to serve the remedial purposes of the act. Morrison v. Int’l Programs Consortium, Inc., 253 F.3d 5, 10 (D.C.Cir.2001). Thus, courts look to the “economic reality” rather than technical common law concepts of agency to determine whether a defendant is an employer. Id. at 11; see also Donovan v. Agnew, 712 F.2d 1509, 1510 (1st Cir.1983).

In applying the economic reality test, the Court considers “the totality of the circumstances of the relationship between the plaintiff/employee and defendant/employer to determine whether the putative employer has the power to hire and fire, supervise and control work schedules or conditions of employment, determine rate and method of pay, and maintain employment records.” Del Villar v. Flynn Architectural Finishes, 664 F.Supp.2d 94, 96 (D.D.C.2009) (citing Morrison, 253 F.3d at 11). This test may show that more than one “employer” is liable for violations of the FLSA. Dep’t of Labor v. Cole Enterprises, Inc., 62 F.3d 775, 778 (6th Cir.1995). As a result, a corporate officer may qualify as an employer along with the corporation under the FLSA if the officer has operational control of a corporation’s covered enterprise. Agnew, 712 F.2d at 1511. To determine whether a corporate officer has operational control, the Court looks at the factors above plus the ownership interest of the corporate officer. See Cole Enterprises, 62 F.3d at 778 (explaining that an individual has operation control if he or she is a high level executive, has a significant ownership interest, controls significant functions of the business, and determines salaries and makes hiring decisions).

Here, plaintiffs have demonstrated that Donna is an “employer” under the FLSA because he has operational control over the corporate defendants. First, Donna is an executive with significant ownership interest in the corporate defendants. He is the president and sole owner of Bebo Foods and was the president and sole owner of RD Trattoria. (Donna Dep. at 18:3-20:11, 29:16-17.) He also owned eighty percent of Galileo. (Id. at 33:7-8.) Second, Donna had the power to hire and fire, control work schedules and supervise employees, determine pay rates, and maintain employment records. For example, Donna transferred employees from Galileo to Bebo Trattoria when Galileo closed in 2006, and he took part in the hiring of other employees. (Pls.’ Opp’n [12] to Defs.’ Mot. to Dismiss Ex. 2; Donna Dep. 54:5-7.) Moreover, at the evidentiary hearing, several plaintiffs testified that Donna supervised plaintiffs on the floor of his restaurants. He also approved wage payments to plaintiffs, including the issuance of post-dated or unsigned checks, the payment of partial wages, and the withholding of any payment. (See, e.g., Ventura Aff. ¶¶ 7-9; Vuckovic Aff ¶ 4.) Furthermore, when plaintiffs complained about defendants’ payment practices, he informed them that he withheld wage payments-either in full or in part-from plaintiffs in order to pay Bebo Trattoria’s past debts for which he was behind in payment. (See, e.g., Ventura Aff. ¶ 7; Romic Aff. ¶ 10.) Indeed, plaintiffs’ evidence demonstrates that Donna exerted operational control over the corporate defendants.

Accordingly, Donna is an “employer” under the FLSA and is personally liable for the corporate defendants’ wage, overtime, and equal pay violations. Similarly, because the DCWPCL is construed consistently with the FLSA, Donna is an “employer” under the DCWPCL and is liable for the corporate defendants’ violations of its wage and overtime provisions.”

Due to the high volume of claims against restaurants and their chef-owners recently, this case will no-doubt will have wide-reaching reverberations.

To read the entire opinion, click here.

To learn more about laws and regulations applicable to tipped employees, click here.

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S.D.Ind.: Exotic Dancers Are Employees, Not Independent Contractors; Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment Granted

Morse v. Mer Corp.

Before the Court were the parties’ cross motions for summary judgment.  Plaintiffs, exotic dancers, alleged that they were employees of Defendant, the owner of the adult entertainment facility where they worked.  Defendant alleged that Plaintiffs were independent contractors and thus, not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  The Court granted Plaintiffs’ motion and denied Defendants motion.

Reciting the facts pertinent to its inquiry, the Court explained:

“The Plaintiffs in this case were all exotic dancers at Dancers Showclub, an establishment owned and operated by the Defendant, in Indianapolis, Indiana. To be hired by the Defendant, an individual had to go to the club, complete an audition application, provide sufficient identification, and perform an audition by dancing to two or three songs. Individuals who passed their auditions and were hired by the Defendant were given a copy of the Entertainer Guidelines (Docket No. 58 Ex. 3). Many of these guidelines, such as those prohibiting the Plaintiffs from leaving with male patrons and those banning family and significant others from the club while the Plaintiffs were performing, were put in place to keep the Plaintiffs safe and to ensure that the Plaintiffs followed the law.

The Defendant classified the Plaintiffs as independent contractors. Accordingly, the Defendant never paid any of the Plaintiffs a wage or other compensation. Instead, the Plaintiffs earned their income by collecting tips from customers. The Defendant did not monitor the Plaintiffs’ income.

None of the Plaintiffs had set work schedules. They were free to come to work on whatever dates and times they chose. They were also free to develop their own clientele and could generate business by advertising on the internet. The Plaintiffs’ dancing rotation was set on a first come, first served basis. Once at work, the Defendant preferred that the Plaintiffs work at least a six-hour shift. At some point during her shift, each Plaintiff was required to pay a House Fee to the Defendant. The House Fee was based on when a Plaintiff checked in to work.

The Entertainer Guidelines suggest that the Plaintiffs pay a “tip out” to the bar and the disc jockey (“DJ”) at the end of every shift. The suggested gratuity is ten percent to the bar and five percent to the DJ. However, this is not a requirement, and the Plaintiffs were not prohibited from working if they failed to pay the recommended tip out.

According to the Entertainer Guidelines, the Plaintiffs were to charge a minimum of $20 for VIP dances. Some Plaintiffs charged more than $20 for VIP dances and, according to the Defendant, no Plaintiff was ever disciplined for charging less than $20 for a VIP dance. A Plaintiff’s success as an exotic dancer was based, in large part, on her ability to entice interaction with her customers.

Discussing and applying the relevant law, the Court explained:

“The Plaintiffs filed this collective action lawsuit alleging that the Defendant violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U .S.C. § 201, by failing to pay them a minimum wage. The parties agree that the relevant inquiry is whether the Plaintiffs were employees or independent contractors. This determination of a worker’s status is a question of law. Sec’y of Labor v. Lauritzen, 835 F.2d 1529, 1535 (7th Cir.1985). “For purposes of social welfare legislation, such as the FLSA, ‘employees are those who as a matter of economic reality are dependent upon the business to which they render service.’ ” Id. at 1534 (quoting Mednick v. Albert Enters., Inc., 508 F.2d 297, 299 (5th Cir.1975)). To determine the parties’ economic reality, the Seventh Circuit “do[es] not look to a particular isolated factor but to all the circumstances of the work activity.” Id. The six factors considered by courts in this circuit are:

(1) the nature and degree of the alleged employer’s control as to the manner in which the work is to be performed; (2) the alleged employee’s opportunity for profit or loss depending upon his managerial skill; (3) the alleged employee’s investment in equipment or materials required for his task, or his employment of workers; (4) whether the service rendered requires a special skill; (5) the degree of permanency and duration of the working relationship; [and] (6) the extent to which the service rendered is an integral part of the alleged employer’s business.  Id. at 1535.

There is no analogous Seventh Circuit case law, and the only federal appellate court to examine the issue of whether exotic dancers are employees or independent contractors was the Fifth Circuit in Reich v. Circle C. Investments, Inc., 998 F.2d 324 (5th Cir.1993). Like the Plaintiffs in the instant litigation, the exotic dancers in Circle C claimed that they were employees, not independent contractors. After applying the Fifth Circuit’s version of the economic realities test, the court of appeals agreed.”

Similarly, here the Court applied the various factors to determine that Plaintiffs were indeed employees, and not independent contractors:

“A. The Defendant’s control as to the manner in which the work is performed.

With respect to the control factor, the Fifth Circuit explained that the club “exercise[d] a great deal of control over the dancers .” Circle C, 998 F.2d at 327. The dancers were “required to comply with weekly work schedules, which Circle C compile[d].” Id. Dancers who were tardy were fined. Circle C set the prices for table and couch dances. Although dancers could choose their own costumes and their own music, both the costume and the music had to meet standards set by Circle C. Id. Circle C also extensively controlled the dancers’ conduct by promulgating rules including: “[N]o flat heels, no more than 15 minutes at one time in the dressing room, only one dancer in the restroom at a time, and all dancers must be ‘on the floor’ at opening time.” Id. Dancers who violated the code of conduct were fined.

The Plaintiffs in the instant case are “subject to a broad range of control by Defendant when it comes to the manner in which their work is performed.” Docket No. 57 at 8. When they are hired, the Plaintiffs receive and review a copy of the Entertainer Guidelines. These guidelines require that, among other things, the Plaintiffs: work at least a six hour shift; charge at least $20 for all VIP dances; refrain from inviting significant others or family members to the club while the Plaintiffs are working; and avoid walking with a lit cigarette, chewing gum, drinking anything from a bottle, or having a cell phone on the club floor. Docket No. 58 Ex. 3 ¶¶ 9-10, 12, 15. Another version of the Entertainer Guidelines prohibits the Plaintiffs from frequenting the club on days when they are not working. See Docket No. 58 Ex. 6 ¶ 13.

The Defendant claims that the Entertainer Guidelines were “of no real import,” Docket No. 64 at 12, because there was no written record of violations. Docket No. 65 Ex. 2 at 27, lines 18-20. Further, certain violations such as chewing gum on the floor were not punished. Id. at 36, lines 3-10. In addition, the Defendant argues that some of the Entertainer Guidelines were included “to ensure that the Entertainers’ behavior conformed with the law and to keep both the patrons and Entertainers safe.” Docket No. 64 at 15. Finally, the Defendant asserts that Circle C is distinguishable because the Plaintiffs in this case were free to work on the dates and times that they chose and thus they largely set their own schedules.

Despite the Defendant’s arguments otherwise, this case is analogous to Circle C. The Defendant in the instant case regulated the Plaintiffs’ behavior with a written code of conduct. Although the Defendant claims that the rules in the Entertainer Guidelines were never enforced, there is nothing in the record indicating that anyone informed the Plaintiffs of this fact. The Defendant cannot claim that it did not impose a significant amount of control on the Plaintiffs by arguing, with absolutely no evidentiary support, that the rules did not actually apply. While it is true that the Plaintiffs in the instant case could set their own work schedules, once at the club, the Defendant asked the Plaintiffs to work for a certain amount of time. The Plaintiffs could request music, but the music was ultimately controlled by the Defendant. See Docket No. 58 Ex. 5 at 46, lines 8-14. The Plaintiffs could pick their own costumes; however, as in Circle C, the Defendant had ultimate veto power. See id. 46-47. Further, the Defendant prohibited the Plaintiffs from being at the club in their free time and also prohibited the Plaintiffs’ families and significant others from coming to the club while the Plaintiffs were working. Docket No. 58 Ex. 6 ¶¶ 13, 16. Finally, the Defendant’s argument that many of the rules were imposed to protect the Plaintiffs and to ensure compliance with the law is unavailing. See Circle C, 998 F.2d at 327 (rejecting Circle C’s attempt to downplay its control). In short, all of the parties’ admissible evidence indicates that the Defendant exerted a significant amount of control over the Plaintiffs. Thus, although the Defendant exercises less control than the club in Circle C, the Defendant’s conduct still indicates that the Plaintiffs were employees.

B. The Plaintiffs’ opportunity for profit or loss.

As to the opportunity for profit and loss, in Circle C the Fifth Circuit noted that although a dancer’s “initiative, hustle, and costume significantly contribute to the amount of her tips,” Circle C, 998 F.2d at 328, the dancers were not responsible for drawing customers to the club in the first place. “Circle C is responsible for advertisement, location, business hours, maintenance of facilities, aesthetics, and inventory of beverages and food.” Id. The court concluded that “[g]iven its control over determinants of customer volume, Circle C exercises and high degree of control over a dancer’s opportunity for ‘profit.’ ” Id. Therefore, “[t]he dancers are ‘far more akin to wage earners toiling for a living, than to independent entrepreneurs seeking a return on their risky capital investments.’ ” Id. (quoting Brock v. Mr. W Fireworks, Inc., 814 F.2d 1042, 1051 (5th Cir.1987)).

In the instant case, a Plaintiff’s only “opportunity for loss comes in the form of a ‘House Fee’ that she is required to pay for each shift, the amount of which ranges from $0.00-$30.00.” Docket No. 57 at 12. “All other potential risks of loss, be they food and beverage related or liability-related, are borne solely by Defendant .” Id. at 13. Similarly, an entertainer has no real opportunity to profit. At best she can “increase her earnings by taking care of herself, working harder, and enticing social interaction with her customers.” Id. The Defendant tacitly acknowledges that this was one way in which the Plaintiffs could enhance their profits. However, the Defendant refuses to acknowledge that this argument has been rejected by every court that has considered it. See, e.g ., Harrell, 992 F.Supp. at 1350; Priba Corp., 890 F.Supp. at 593. The Defendant also emphasizes that the Plaintiffs were allowed to advertise and market themselves by using MySpace, Facebook, and simple word of mouth. Docket No. 64 at 17. This may be true, but the simple fact remains that, like the club in Circle C, the Defendant is primarily responsible for drawing customers into the club. See Circle C, 998 F.2d at 328. Thus, the second factor also tips in favor of employee status.

C. The Plaintiffs’ investment in equipment or materials.

In Circle C, the Fifth Circuit noted that “a dancer’s investment is limited to her costumes and a padlock.” Circle C, 998 F.2d at 327. Although the court acknowledged that some dancers spend a significant amount of money on their costumes, the court concluded that “[a] dancer’s investment in costumes and a padlock is relatively minor to the considerable investment Circle C has in operating a nightclub.” Id. at 328; see also Harrell, 992 F.Supp. at 1350. “Circle C owns the liquor license, owns the inventory of beverages and refreshments, leases fixtures for the nightclub … owns sound equipment and music, maintains and renovates the facilities, and advertises extensively.”   Circle C, 998 F.2d at 327. Thus, this factor indicated that the dancers were employees.

The instant case is markedly similar to Circle C. The Plaintiffs “do not make any capital investment in Defendant’s facilities, advertising, maintenance, security, staff, sound system and lights, food, beverage, and other inventory.” Docket No. 57 at 14. The Plaintiffs’ only investment is in their costumes and their general appearance (i.e. hair, makeup, and nails). Id. at 15. Thus, as in Circle C, this factor tips in favor of employee status.

D. Special skills required.

The Fifth Circuit concluded that the dancers in Circle C “do not need long training or highly developed skills to dance at a Circle C nightclub.” 998 F.2d at 328. Indeed, many of Circle C’s dancers had never before worked at a topless dance club. Id. Other courts have consistently held that little skill is necessary to be a topless dancer. See, e.g., Harrell, 992 F.Supp. at 1351; Priba Corp., 890 F.Supp. at 593; Jeffcoat v. Alaska Dept. of Labor, 732 P.2d 1073, 1077 (Alaska 1987) (applying federal courts’ economic realities analysis).

In the instant case, the Defendant claims that although the entertainers are not trained dancers, they must possess special skills “in communicating, listening, and (to some minor extent) counseling” in order to be successful. Docket No. 64 at 21. According to the Defendant, an Entertainer must be a peculiar combination of a customer service representative and counselor: she must have excellent listening skills, the ability to read another person’s affect and discern from that demeanor his particular conversational or emotional needs, and the ability and willingness to fulfill those needs in a purely non-sexual way. Id. at 21-22. This argument is unconvincing, especially because nothing in the record indicates that the Defendant’s hiring process included an assessment of a prospective dancer’s communication or counseling skills. Having examined all of the parties’ admissible evidence, the Court is convinced that this factor indicates that the Plaintiffs are employees.

E. The degree of permanency of the working relationship.

The Circle C court noted that “most dancers have short-term relationships with Circle C.” Circle C, 998 F.2d at 328. “Although not determinative, the impermanent relationship between the dancers and Circle C indicates non-employee status.” Id. However, the court concluded that “[t]he transient nature of the work force is not enough here to remove the dancers from the protections of the FLSA.” Id. at 328-29. Thus, despite the fact that this factor tipped in favor of independent contractor status, the court was convinced that the economic realities of the relationship indicated that the dancers were employees. Id. at 329.

In the case presently before this Court, the Plaintiffs argue that the Defendant considered the relationship between the parties to be ongoing. See Docket No. 57 at 16-17. Thus, according to the Plaintiffs, their situation is materially different “from the limited-duration relationship typical to independent contractors.” Id. at 17. However, the Defendant submitted admissible evidence indicating that most of the dancers only worked at the Defendant’s club for six months. Docket No. 65 Ex. 6 ¶ 3. Thus, as in Circle C, this factor tips in favor of independent contractor status.

F. The extent to which the Plaintiffs’ service is integral to the Defendant’s business.

The Fifth Circuit does not include this factor in its economic realities analysis. However, other district courts have considered this issue and have concluded that “[e]xotic dancers are obviously essential to the success of a topless nightclub.” Harrell, 992 F.Supp. at 1352; see also Jeffcoat, 732 P.2d at 1077. Although the Defendant claims that no more than ten percent of its profits came from the dancers, and thus, “the Entertainers are not a vital part of its business,” Docket No. 64 at 24, this assertion is belied by the Defendant’s own deposition testimony. Manager James Nicholson stated that “[p]robably less than one percent” of the club’s customers go to the club solely for food and drink. Docket No. 58 Ex. 1 at 27, line 20. When asked what would happen “if the club limited the use of dancers at the facility,” Nicholson stated: “The same thing if McDonald’s got rid of hamburgers, all right? We wouldn’t be that business.” Id. at 27, lines 21-25; id. at 28, line 1.

The Defendant’s argument that the dancers are non-essential forms of extra entertainment, “like televisions at a sports bar” is simply unconvincing. Robert W. Wood, Pole Dancers: Employees or Contractors? TAX NOTES, Nov. 9, 2009, at 673, 675. Indeed, the Defendant’s own manager apparently does not believe this assertion. The Plaintiffs are critical to the Defendant’s current business model. Thus, this factor indicates that the Plaintiffs are employees, and not independent contractors.

Having considered all of the parties’ admissible evidence and viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Defendant, the Lauritzen factors indicate that the Plaintiffs are 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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