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4th Cir.: Strippers Are Employees NOT Independent Contractors; Trial Court Properly Applied the Economic Reality Test

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McFeeley v. Jackson Street Entertainment, LLC

In this case, multiple exotic dancers sued their dance clubs for failure to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act and corresponding Maryland wage and hour laws. The district court held that plaintiffs were employees of the defendant companies and not independent contractors as the clubs contended. Following a damages-only trial and judgment on behalf of the dancers, the Defendant-clubs appealed the court’s finding that the dancers were employees and not independent contractors.  The Fourth Circuit held that the court properly captured the economic reality of the relationship here, and thus affirmed the judgment.

The Fourth Circuit summarized the salient facts regarding the dancers’ relationship with the defendant-clubs as follows:

Anyone wishing to dance at either club was required to fill out a form and perform an audition. Defendants asked all hired dancers to sign agreements titled “Space/Lease Rental Agreement of Business Space” that explicitly categorized dancers as independent contractors. The clubs began using these agreements after being sued in 2011 by dancers who claimed, as plaintiffs do here, to have been employees rather than independent contractors. Defendant Offiah thereafter consulted an attorney, who drafted the agreement containing the “independent contractor” language.

Plaintiffs’ duties at Fuego and Extasy primarily involved dancing on stage and in certain other areas of the two clubs. At no point did the clubs pay the dancers an hourly wage or any other form of compensation. Rather, plaintiffs’ compensation was limited to performance fees and tips received directly from patrons. The clubs also collected a “tip-in” fee from everyone who entered either dance club, patrons and dancers alike. The dancers and clubs dispute other aspects of their working relationship, including work schedules and policies.

After discussing the traditional elements of the economic reality test, the Fourth Circuit discussed each element and concluded that, overall, they supported the district court’s holding that the dancers were employees and not independent contractors.

Here, as in so many FLSA disputes, plaintiffs and defendants offer competing narratives of their working relationship. The exotic dancers claim that all aspects of their work at Fuego and Extasy were closely regulated by defendants, from their hours to their earnings to their workplace conduct. The clubs, not surprisingly, portray the dancers as free agents that came and went as they pleased and used the clubs as nothing but a rented space in which to perform. The dueling depictions serve to remind us that the employee/independentcontractor distinction is not a bright line but a spectrum, and that courts must struggle with matters of degree rather than issue categorical pronouncements.

Based on the totality of the circumstances presented here, the relationship between plaintiffs and defendants falls on the employee side of the spectrum. Even given that we must view the facts in the light most favorable to defendants, see Ctr. for Individual Freedom, Inc. v. Tennant, 706 F.3d 270, 279 (4th Cir. 2013), we cannot accept defendants’ contrary characterization, which cherry-picks a few facts that supposedly tilt in their favor and downplays the weightier and more numerous factors indicative of an employment relationship. Most critical on the facts of this case is the first factor of the “economic realities” test: the degree of control that the putative employer has over the manner in which the work is performed.

The clubs insist they had very little control over the dancers. Plaintiffs were allegedly free in the clubs’ view to determine their own work schedules, how and when they performed, and whether they danced at clubs other than Fuego and Extasy. But the relaxed working relationship represented by defendants—the kind that perhaps every worker dreams about—finds little support in the record.

To the contrary, plaintiffs described and the district court found the following plain manifestations of defendants’ control over the dancers:

  • Dancers were required to sign in upon arriving at the club and to pay the “tip-in” or entrance fee required of both dancers and patrons.

  • The clubs dictated each dancer’s work schedule. As plaintiff Danielle Everett testified, “I ended up having a set schedule once I started at Fuego’s. Tuesdays and Thursdays there, and Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at Extasy.” J.A. 578 (Everett’s deposition). This was typical of the deposition testimony submitted in the summary judgment record.

  • The clubs imposed written guidelines that all dancers had to obey during working hours. J.A. 769-77 (clubs’ rulebook). These rules went into considerable detail, banning drinking while working, smoking in the clubs’ bathroom, and loitering in the parking lot after business hours. They prohibited dancers from leaving the club and returning later in the night. Dancers were required to wear dance shoes at all times and could not bring family or friends to the clubs during working hours. Violations of the clubs’ guidelines carried penalties such as suspension or dismissal. Although the defendants claimed not to enforce the rules, as the district court put it, “[a]n employer’s ‘potential power’ to enforce its rules and manage dancers’ conduct is a form of control.” J.A. 997 (quoting Hart v. Rick’s Cabaret Int’l, Inc., 967 F.Supp.2d 901, 918 (S.D.N.Y. 2013)).

  • The clubs set the fees that dancers were supposed to charge patrons for private dances and dictated how tips and fees were handled. The guidelines explicitly state: “[D]o not [overcharge] our customers. If you do, you will be kicked out of the club.” J.A. 771.

  • Defendants personally instructed dancers on their behavior and conduct at work. For example, one manager stated that he “ ‘coached’ dancers whom he believed did not have the right attitude or were not behaving properly.” J.A. 997.

  • Defendants managed the clubs’ atmosphere and clientele by making all decisions regarding advertising, hours of operation, and the types of food and beverages sold, as well as handling lighting and music for the dancers. Id.

Reviewing the above factual circumstances into account the Fourth Circuit held that the district court was correct to conclude that the dancers were employees of the clubs under the FLSA and not independent contractors.  The Court reasoned:

Taking the above circumstances into account, the district court found that the clubs’ “significant control” over how plaintiffs performed their work bore little resemblance to the latitude normally afforded to independent contractors. J.A. 997. We agree. The many ways in which defendants directed the dancers rose to the level of control that an employer would typically exercise over an employee. To conclude otherwise would unduly downgrade the factor of employer control and exclude workers that the FLSA was designed to embrace.

None of this is to suggest that a worker automatically becomes an employee covered by the FLSA the moment a company exercises any control over him. After all, a company that engages an independent contractor seeks to exert some control, whether expressed orally or in writing, over the performance of the contractor’s duties and over his conduct on the company’s premises. It is rather hard to imagine a party contracting for needed services with an insouciant “Do whatever you want, wherever you want, and however you please.” A company that leases space or otherwise invites independent contractors onto its property might at a minimum wish to prohibit smoking and littering or to set the hours of use in order to keep the premises in good shape. Such conditions, along with the terms of performance and compensation, are part and parcel of bargaining between parties whose independent contractual status is not in dispute.

If any sign of control or any restriction on use of space could convert an independent contractor into an employee, there would soon be nothing left of the former category. Workers and managers alike might sorely miss the flexibility and freedom that independent-contractor status confers. But the degree of control the clubs exercised here over all aspects of the individual dancers’ work and of the clubs’ operation argues in favor of an employment relationship. Each of the other five factors of the “economic realities” test is either neutral or leads us in the same direction.

Two of those factors relate logically to one other: “the worker’s opportunities for profit or loss dependent on his managerial skill” and “the worker’s investment in equipment or material, or his employment of other workers.” Schultz, 466 F.3d at 305. The relevance of these two factors is intuitive. The more the worker’s earnings depend on his own managerial capacity rather than the company’s, and the more he is personally invested in the capital and labor of the enterprise, the less the worker is “economically dependent on the business” and the more he is “in business for himself” and hence an independent contractor. Id. at 304 (quoting Henderson v. Inter-Chem Coal Co., Inc., 41 F.3d 567, 570 (10th Cir. 1994)).

The clubs attempt to capitalize on these two factors by highlighting that dancers relied on their own skill and ability to attract clients. They further contend that dancers sold tickets for entrance to the two clubs, distributed promotional flyers, and put their own photos on the flyers. As the district court noted, however, “[t]his argument—that dancers can ‘hustle’ to increase their profits—has been almost universally rejected.” J.A. 999 (collecting cases). It is natural for an employee to do his part in drumming up business for his employer, especially if the employee’s earnings depend on it. An obvious example might be a salesperson in a retail store who works hard at drawing foot traffic into the store. The skill that the employee exercises in that context is not managerial but simply good salesmanship.

Here, the lion’s share of the managerial skill and investment normally expected of employers came from the defendants. The district court found that the clubs’ managers “controlled the stream of clientele that appeared at the clubs by setting the clubs’ hours, coordinating and paying for all advertising, and managing the atmosphere within the clubs.” J.A. 1001. They “ultimately controlled a key determinant—pricing—affecting [p]laintiffs’ ability to make a profit.” Id. In terms of investment, defendants paid “rent for both clubs; the clubs’ bills such as water and electric; business liability insurance; and for radio and print advertising,” as well as wages for all non-performing staff. Id. at 1002. The dancers’ investment was limited to their own apparel and, on occasion, food and decorations they brought to the clubs. Id. at 1002-03.

On balance then, plaintiffs’ opportunities for profit or loss depended far more on defendants’ management and decision-making than on their own, and defendants’ investment in the clubs’ operation far exceeded the plaintiffs’. These two factors thus fail to tip the scales in favor of classifying the dancers as independent contractors.

As with the control factor, however, neither of these two elements should be overstated. Those who engage independent contractorsare often themselves companies or small businesses with employees of their own. Therefore, they have most likely invested in the labor and capital necessary to operate the business, taken on overhead costs, and exercised their managerial skill in ways that affect the opportunities for profit of their workers. Those fundamental components of running a company, however, hardly render anyone with whom the company transacts business an “employee” under the FLSA. The focus, as suggested by the wording of these two factors, should remain on the worker’s contribution to managerial decision-making and investment relative to the company’s. In this case, the ratio of managerial skill and operational support tilts too heavily towards the clubs to support an independent-contractor classification for the dancers.

The final three factors are more peripheral to the dispute here and will be discussed only briefly: the degree of skill required for the work; the permanence of the working relationship; and the degree to which the services rendered are an integral part of the putative employer’s business. As to the degree of skill required, the clubs conceded that they did not require dancers to have prior dancing experience. The district court properly found that “the minimal degree of skill required for exotic dancing at these clubs” supported anemployee classification. J.A. 1003-04. Moreover, even the skill displayed by the most accomplished dancers in a ballet company would hardly by itself be sufficient to denote an independent contractor designation.

As to the permanence of the working relationship, courts have generally accorded this factor little weight in challenges brought by exotic dancers given the inherently “itinerant” nature of their work. J.A. 1004-05; see also Harrell v. Diamond A Entm’t, Inc., 992 F.Supp. 1343, 1352 (M.D. Fla. 1997). In this case, defendants and plaintiffs had “an at-will arrangement that could be terminated by either party at any time.” J.A. 1005. Because this type of agreement could characterize either an employee or an independent contractor depending on the other circumstances of the working relationship, we agree with the district court that this temporal element does not affect the outcome here.

Finally, as to the importance of the services rendered to the company’s business, even the clubs had to concede the point that an “exotic dance club could [not] function, much less be profitable, without exotic dancers.” Secretary of Labor’s Amicus Br. in Supp. of Appellees 24. Indeed, “the exotic dancers were the only source of entertainment for customers …. especially considering that neither club served alcohol or food.” J.A. 1006. Considering all six factors together, particularly the defendants’ high degree of control over the dancers, the totality of circumstances speak clearly to an employer-employee relationship between plaintiffs and defendants. The trial court was right to term it such.

Significantly, the Fourth Circuit also affirmed the trial court’s holding that the performance fees collected by the dancers directly from the clubs’ patrons were not wages, and that the clubs were not entitled to claim same as an offset in an effort to meet their minimum wage wage obligations.  Discussing this issue, the Court explained:

Appellants’ second attack on their liability for damages targets the district court’s alleged error in excluding from trial evidence regarding plaintiffs’ income tax returns, performance fees, and tips. The clubs contend that fees and tips kept by the dancers would have reduced any compensation that defendants owed plaintiffs under the FLSA and MWHL. According to defendants, the fees and tips dancers received directly from patrons exceeded the minimum wage mandated by federal and state law. Had the evidence been admitted, the argument goes, the jury may have awarded plaintiffs less in unpaid wages.

We disagree. The district court found that evidence related to plaintiffs’ earnings was irrelevant or, if relevant, posed a danger of confusing the issues and misleading the jury. See Fed. R. Evid. 403. Proof of tips and fees received was irrelevant here because theFLSA precludes defendants from using tips or fees to offset the minimum wage they were required to pay plaintiffs. To be eligible for the “tip credit” under the FLSA and corresponding Maryland law, defendants were required to pay dancers the minimum wage set for those receiving tip income and to notify employees of the “tip credit” provision. 29 U.S.C. 203(m)Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 3-419 (West 2014). The clubs paid the dancers no compensation of any kind and afforded them no notice. They cannot therefore claim the “tip credit.”

The clubs are likewise ineligible to use performance fees paid by patrons to the dancers to reduce their liability. Appellants appear to distinguish performance fees from tips in their argument, without providing much analysis in their briefs on a question that has occupied other courts. See, e.g.Hart, 967 F.Supp.2d at 926-34 (discussing how performance fees received by exotic dancers relate to minimum wage obligations). If performance fees do constitute tips, defendants would certainly be entitled to no offset because, as noted above, they cannot claim any “tip credit.” For the sake of argument, however, we treat performance fees as a possible separate offset within the FLSA’s “service charge” category. Even with this benefit of the doubt, defendants come up short.

For purposes of the FLSA, a “service charge” is a “compulsory charge for service … imposed on a customer by an employer’s establishment.” 29 C.F.R. § 531.55(a). There are at least two prerequisites to counting “service charges” as an offset to an employer’s minimum-wage liability. The service charge “must have been included in the establishment’s gross receipts,” Hart, 967 F.Supp.2d at 929, and it must have been “distributed by the employer to its employees,” 29 C.F.R. § 531.55(b). These requirements are necessary to ensure that employees actually received the service charges as part of their compensation as opposed to relying on the employer’s assertion or say-so. See Hart, 967 F.Supp.2d at 930. We do not minimize the recordkeeping burdens of the FLSA, especially on small businesses, but some such obligations have been regarded as necessary to ensure compliance with the statute.

Neither condition for applying the service-charge offset is met here. As conceded by defendant Offiah, the dance clubs never recorded or included as part of the dance clubs’ gross receipts any payments that patrons paid directly to dancers. J.A. 491-97 (Offiah’s deposition). When asked about performance fees during his deposition, defendant Offiah repeatedly stressed that fees belong solely to the dancers. Id. Since none of those payments ever went to the clubs’ proprietors, defendants also could not have distributed any part of those service charges to the dancers. As a result, the “service charge” offset is unavailable to defendants. Accordingly, the trial court correctly excluded evidence showing plaintiffs’ earnings in the form of tips and performance fees.

This case is significant because, while many district courts have reached the same conclusions, this is the first Circuit Court decision to affirm same.

Click McFeeley v. Jackson Street Entertainment, LLC to read the entire Fourth Circuit decision.

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