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5th Cir.: Restaurant Cannot Take Tip Credit Where Retained Portion of Tips to Offset Credit Card Processing Costs in Excess of Its Direct Costs of Collecting Credit Card Tips

Steele v. Leasing Enterprises, Limited

This case was before the Fifth Circuit on the parties’ cross-appeals.  As discussed here, the case concerned an employer’s ability to withhold a percentage of an employee’s tips received by credit card to offset the fees associated with collecting credit card tips under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  Specifically, the issue was whether the 3.25% that the defendant-restaurant admittedly retained of all credit card tips exceeded its actual costs of processing same, such that the employer forfeited any entitlement to take the tip credit with regard to its tipped employees.  The district court held that the defendant was not entitled to take the tip credit because this deduction exceeded the direct costs of collecting credit card tips for Perry’s’ tipped employees.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed the finding and held that the retention of tips in excess of the actual cost of collecting those tips violated 29 U.S.C. § 203(m).  As such, the employer was not entitled to benefit from the tip credit and was instead required to pay all tipped employees the regular minimum wage for all hours worked.

Describing the relevant facts, the court explained:

Instead of paying servers their charged tips through their bi-weekly pay checks, Perry’s chose to pay its servers their charged tips in cash on a daily basis. Perry’s voluntarily started this practice in response to servers’ requests. In order to pay its servers their charged tips in cash on a daily basis, Perry’s arranged for armored vehicles to deliver cash to each of its restaurants three times per week. Perry’s’ Chief Operating Officer testified that such frequent deliveries were necessary due to security concerns associated with keeping a large amount of cash on its premises.

In August 2009, Plaintiffs initiated this collective action. In their third amended complaint, they alleged that Perry’s had violated the FLSA by charging its servers the 3.25% offset fee. On August 31, 2010, the district court entered a partial interlocutory judgment, holding that Perry’s may offset credit card issuer fees, but not other costs associated with computers, labor, or cash delivery…

Following a bench trial, the district court issued findings of fact and conclusions of law, holding that Perry’s’ 3.25% offset violated the FLSA because the offset exceeded Perry’s’ credit card issuer fees. The court also held that Perry’s’ cash-delivery expenses could not be included in the offset amount because “[t]he restaurant’s decision to pay it[s] servers in cash is a business decision, not a fee directly attributable to its cost of dealing in credit” and that Perry’s had failed to prove fees related to cancellation of transactions and manual entry of credit card numbers, and therefore could not rely on these amounts to justify the amount of its offset. Finally, the court held that Perry’s may not include other expenses, such as costs associated with bookkeeping and reconciliation of cash tips, in the offset amount because those costs are incurred as a result of ordinary operations only indirectly related to Perry’s’ tip policy. The court concluded that even if it included all of Perry’s’ indirect costs, the 3.25% offset fee exceeded Perry’s’ total costs.

After discussing the law regarding the tip credit generally, the Fifth Circuit framed the issue before it as follows:

In this case we must determine whether an employer may offset employees’ tips that a customer charges on a credit card to recover the costs associated with collecting credit card tips without violating § 203(m)’s requirement that the employee retains all the tips that the employee receives. Specifically, we must determine if the employer violates that requirement when it offsets credit tips to recover costs that exceed the direct fees charged by the credit card companies. Perry’s contends that it may offset both credit card issuer fees and its own cash-delivery expenses and still claim a tip credit under 29 U.S.C. § 203(m). Plaintiffs assert that Perry’s may offset only an amount no greater than the total amount of credit card issuer fees.

The court then discussed the only prior circuit court decision to discuss this issue at length, and relevant DOL regulations and guidance:

Both parties rely on the only circuit court decision to address this issue, Myers v. Copper Cellar Corp., 192 F.3d 546 (6th Cir. 1999). In Myers, the employer deducted a fixed 3% service charge from employee tips whenever a customer tipped by credit card to account for the discount rate charged by credit card issuers. Id. at 552. Because the employer always deducted a fixed percentage, the deduction sometimes rose above or fell below the fee charged on a particular transaction. Id. at 553. The employees challenged this deduction, arguing that any withholding of tips violates § 203(m). The Sixth Circuit disagreed, holding that “an employer may subtract a sum from an employee’s charged gratuity which reasonably compensates it for its outlays sustained in clearing that tip, without surrendering its section 203(m) [tip credit].” Id. The Sixth Circuit determined that an employee does not “receive” a charged tip under § 203(m) until the “debited obligation [is] converted into cash.” Id. The court noted that this conversion is predicated on the “payment of a handling fee to the credit card issuer.” Id. at 554.

To reach that conclusion, the Sixth Circuit relied on 29 C.F.R. §§ 531.52 and 531.53. Section 531.52 defines tip as “a sum presented by a customer as a gift or gratuity in recognition of some service performed for him.” Section 531.53 further clarifies that tips include “amounts transferred by the employer to the employee pursuant to directions from credit customers who designate amounts to be added to their bills as tips.” The Sixth Circuit held that these two regulations make it clear “that a charged gratuity becomes a ‘tip’ only after the employer has liquidated it and transferred the proceeds to the tipped employee; prior to that transfer, the employer has an obvious legal right to deduct the cost of converting the credited tip to cash.” Myers, 192 F.3d at 554. The court noted that “payment of a handling fee to the credit card issuer” is “required” for that liquidation. Id. at 553–54.

As recognized by the Sixth Circuit, the Department of Labor has long interpreted its regulations to permit employers to deduct credit card issuer fees. U.S. Dept. of Labor Field Operations Handbook § 30d05(a) (Dec. 9, 1988).  In Myers, the Sixth Circuit added that such a deduction is allowed under the statute even if, as a consequence, some deductions will exceed the expense actually incurred in collecting the subject gratuity, as long as the employer proves by a preponderance of the evidence that, in the aggregate, the amounts collected from its employees, over a definable time period, have reasonably reimbursed it for no more than its total expenditures associated with credit card tip collections.

Myers, 192 F.3d at 554. Following Myers, the Department of Labor amended its position to allow employers to deduct an average offset for credit card issuer fees as long as “the employer reduces the amount of credit card tips paid to the employee by an amount no greater than the amount charged to the employer by the credit card company.” See U.S. Dept. of Labor Wage and Hour Division Opinion Letter FLSA2006-1.5 The parties do not contest that an employer may deduct a fixed composite amount from credit card tips, so long as that composite does not exceed the total expenditures on credit card issuer fees, and still maintain a tip credit. We agree. Credit card fees are a compulsory cost of collecting credit card tips. As a result, an employer may offset credit card tips for credit card issuer fees and still satisfy the requirements of § 203(m).  However, our inquiry does not end with this holding.

Applying the law to the facts at bar, the court concluded that the employer’s 3.25% chargeback was an impermissible offset, because here the defendant-employer was seeking an offset for costs above and beyond their actual direct cost of collecting credit card tips.  In so doing, the Fifth Circuit like the court below rejected the employer’s argument that it should be entitled to build its indirect costs of processing the credit card tips (that it voluntarily incurred based on its business decision) in addition to the direct cost of processing the credit card tips.  The court reasoned:

Perry’s concedes that its 3.25% offset always exceeded the total credit card issuer fees, including swipe fees, charge backs, void fees, and manual-entry fees. Perry’s submitted demonstrative exhibits which showed that the total offset for each restaurant exceeded all credit card issuer fees by at least $7,500 a year, and by as much as $39,000 in 2012. As a result, Perry’s argues that an employer may also deduct an average of additional expenditures associated with credit card tips and still maintain a tip credit under § 203(m). Although Perry’s justified its 3.25% offset based on a number of other expenses before the district court, Perry’s now maintains that credit card issuer fees and its cash-delivery expenses alone justify the 3.25% offset. In support, Perry’s shows that on an aggregate basis (and across all restaurants), Perry’s’ expenses for collecting and distributing credit card tips to cash—including both credit card issuer fees and expenses for cash-delivery services—always exceeded the offset amount. We must determine whether deducting additional amounts for cash-delivery services violates § 203’s requirement that the employee must keep all of his or her tips.

A Perry’s corporate executive testified that it made a “business decision” to receive cash deliveries three times a week in order to cash out servers’ tips each day and to decrease security concerns associated with keeping too much cash in the register. Importantly, this executive testified that it was only necessary to cash out servers each night because of employee demand, and that if it instead transferred the tips to the servers in their bi-weekly pay checks, the extra cash deliveries would not be necessary. The district court found that Perry’s’ cash-delivery system was “a business decision, not a fee directly attributable to its cost of dealing in credit.” We agree.

In Myers, the Sixth Circuit allowed the employer to offset tips to cover reasonable reimbursement for costs “associated with credit card tip collections” and highlighted that credit card fees were “required” to transfer credit to cash.9 192 F.3d at 554–55 (emphasis added). That court emphasized that the employer’s deductions were acceptable because “[t]he liquidation of the restaurant patron’s paper debt to the table server required the predicate payment of a handling fee to the credit card issuer.” Id. at 553–54. The Department of Labor incorporated a reading of Myers in an opinion letter:

The employer’s deduction from tips for the cost imposed by the credit card company reflects a charge by an entity outside the relationship of employer and tipped employee. However, it is the Wage and Hour Division’s position that the other costs that [an employer] wishes the tipped employees to bear must be considered the normal administrative costs of [the employer’s] restaurant operations. For example, time spent by servers processing credit card sales represents an activity that generates revenue for the restaurant, not an activity primarily associated with collecting tips.

U.S. Dept. of Labor Wage and Hour Division Opinion Letter FLSA2006-1. While it is unnecessary to opine whether any costs, other than the fees charged directly by a credit card company, associated with collecting credit card tips can ever be deducted by an employer, we conclude that an employer only has a legal right to deduct those costs that are required to make such a collection.

Perry’s made two internal business decisions that were not required to collect credit card tips: (1) Perry’s responded to its employees’ demand to be tipped out in cash each night, instead of transferring their tips in their bi-weekly pay checks, and (2) Perry’s elected to have cash delivered three times a week to address security concerns.11 Unlike credit card issuer fees, which every employer accepting credit card tips must pay, the cost of cash delivery three times a week is an indirect and discretionary cost associated with accepting credit card tips. As the district court noted, this cash delivery was “a business decision, not a fee directly attributable to its cost of dealing in credit.” Moreover, Perry’s deducted an amount that exceeded these total costs—credit card issuer fees and cash-delivery expenses—in nine of the relevant restaurant-years.

Thus, the court concluded that:

Allowing Perry’s to offset employees’ tips to cover discretionary costs of cash delivery would conflict with § 203(m)’s requirement that “all tips received by such employee have been retained by the employee” for employers to maintain a statutory tip credit. Perry’s has not pointed to any additional expenses that are the direct and unavoidable consequence of accepting credit card tips. Because Perry’s offset always exceeded the direct costs required to convert credit card tips to cash, as contemplated in § 203(m) and interpreted by the Sixth Circuit, we hold that Perry’s’ 3.25% offset violated § 203(m) of the FLSA, and therefore Perry’s must be divested of its statutory tip credit for the relevant time period.

Click Steele v. Leasing Enterprises, Limited to read the entire Fifth Circuit decision.

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

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.

9th Cir.: Employers May NOT Retain Employee Tips Even Where They Do Not Take a Tip Credit; 2011 DOL Regulations Which Post-Dated Woody Woo Due Chevron Deference Because Existing Law Was Silent and Interpretation is Reasonable

 

Oregon Rest. & Lodging Ass’n v. Perez

In a case that will likely have very wide-reaching effects, this week the Ninth Circuit reversed 2 lower court decisions which has invalidated the Department of Labor’s 2011 tip credit regulations. Specifically, the lower courts had held, in accordance with the Ninth Circuit’s Woody Woo decision which pre-dated the regulations at issue, that the DOL lacked the authority to regulate employers who did not take a tip credit with respect to how they treated their employees’ tips. Holding that the 2011 regulations were due so-called Chevron deference, the Ninth Circuit held that the lower court had incorrectly relied on its own Woody Woo case because the statutory/regulatory silence that had existed when Woody Woo was decided had been properly filled by the 2011 regulations. As such, the Ninth Circuit held that the lower court was required to give the DOL regulation deference and as such, an employer may never retain any portion of its employees tips, regardless of whether it avails itself of the tip credit or not.

Framing the issue, the Ninth Circuit explained “[t]he precise question before this court is whether the DOL may regulate the tip pooling practices of employers who do not take a tip credit.” It further noted that while “[t]he restaurants and casinos [appellees] argue that we answered this question in Cumbie. We did not.”

The court then applied Chevron analysis to the DOL’s 2011 regulation at issue.

Holding that the regulation filled a statutory silence that existed at the time of the regulation, and thus met Step 1 of Chevron, the court reasoned:

as Christensen strongly suggests, there is a distinction between court decisions that interpret statutory commands and court decisions that interpret statutory silence. Moreover, Chevron itself distinguishes between statutes that directly address the precise question at issue and those for which the statute is “silent.” Chevron, 467 U.S. at 843. As such, if a court holds that a statute unambiguously protects or prohibits certain conduct, the court “leaves no room for agency discretion” under Brand X, 545 U.S. at 982. However, if a court holds that a statute does not prohibit conduct because it is silent, the court’s ruling leaves room for agency discretion under Christensen.

Cumbie falls precisely into the latter category of cases—cases grounded in statutory silence. When we decided Cumbie, the DOL had not yet promulgated the 2011 rule. Thus, there was no occasion to conduct a Chevron analysis in Cumbie because there was no agency interpretation to analyze. The Cumbie analysis was limited to the text of section 203(m). After a careful reading of section 203(m) in Cumbie, we found that “nothing in the text of the FLSA purports to restrict employee tip-pooling arrangements when no tip credit is taken” and therefore there was “no statutory impediment” to the practice. 596 F.3d at 583. Applying the reasoning in Christensen, we conclude that section 203(m)‘s clear silence as to employers who do not take a tip credit has left room for the DOL to promulgate the 2011 rule. Whereas the restaurants, casinos, and the district courts equate this silence concerning employers who do not take a tip credit to “repudiation” of future regulation of such employers, we decline to make that great leap without more persuasive evidence. See United States v. Home Concrete & Supply, LLC, 132 S. Ct 1836, 1843, 182 L. Ed. 2d 746 (2012) (“[A] statute’s silence or ambiguity as to a particular issue means that Congress has . . . likely delegat[ed] gap-filling power to the agency[.]”); Entergy Corp. v. Riverkeeper, Inc., 556 U.S. 208, 222, 129 S. Ct. 1498, 173 L. Ed. 2d 369 (2009) (“[S]ilence is meant to convey nothing more than a refusal to tie the agency’s hands . . . .”); S.J. Amoroso Constr. Co. v. United States, 981 F.2d 1073, 1075 (9th Cir. 1992) (“Without language in the statute so precluding [the agency’s challenged interpretation], it must be said that Congress has not spoken to the issue.”).

In sum, we conclude that step one of the Chevron analysis is satisfied because the FLSA is silent regarding the tip pooling practices of employers who do not take a tip credit. Our decision in Cumbie did not hold otherwise.

Proceeding to step 2 of Chevron analysis, the court held that the 2011 regulation was reasonable in light of the existing statutory framework of the FLSA and its legislative history. The court reasoned:

The DOL promulgated the 2011 rule after taking into consideration numerous comments and our holding in Cumbie. The AFL-CIO, National Employment Lawyers Association, and the Chamber of Commerce all commented that section 203(m) was either “confusing” or “misleading” with respect to the ownership of tips. 76 Fed. Reg. at 18840-41. The DOL also considered our reading of section 203(m) in Cumbie and concluded that, as written, 203(m) contained a “loophole” that allowed employers to exploit the FLSA tipping provisions. Id. at 18841. It was certainly reasonable to conclude that clarification by the DOL was needed. The DOL’s clarification—the 2011 rule—was a reasonable response to these comments and relevant case law.

The legislative history of the FLSA supports the DOL’s interpretation of section 203(m) of the FLSA. An “authoritative source for finding the Legislature’s intent lies in the Committee Reports on the bill, which represent the considered and collective understanding of those Congressmen [and women] involved in drafting and studying proposed legislation.” Garcia v. United States, 469 U.S. 70, 76, 105 S. Ct. 479, 83 L. Ed. 2d 472 (1984) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). On February 21, 1974, the Senate Committee published its views on the 1974 amendments to section 203(m). S. Rep. No. 93-690 (1974).

Rejecting the employer-appellees argument that the regulation was unreasonable, the court explained:

Employer-Appellees argue that the report reveals an intent contrary to the DOL’s interpretation because the report states that an “employer will lose the benefit of [the tip credit] exception if tipped employees are required to share their tips with employees who do not customarily and regularly receive tips[.]” In other words, Appellees contend that Congress viewed the ability to take a tip credit as a benefit that came with conditions and should an employer fail to meet these conditions, such employer would be ineligible to reap the benefits of taking a tip credit. While this is a fair interpretation of the statute, it is a leap too far to conclude that Congress clearly intended to deprive the DOL the ability to later apply similar conditions on employers who do not take a tip credit.

The court also examined the Senate Committee’s report with regard to the enactment of 203(m), the statutory section to which the 2011 regulation was enacted to interpret and stated:

Moreover, the surrounding text in the Senate Committee report supports the DOL’s reading of section 203(m). The Committee reported that the 1974 amendment “modifies section [20]3(m) of the Fair Labor Standards Act by requiring . . . that all tips received be paid out to tipped employees.” S. Rep. No. 93-690, at 42. This language supports the DOL’s statutory construction that “[t]ips are the property of the employee whether or not the employer has taken a tip credit.” 29 C.F.R. § 531.52. In the same report, the Committee wrote that “tipped employee[s] should have stronger protection,” and reiterated that a “tip is . . . distinguished from payment of a charge . . . [and the customer] has the right to determine who shall be the recipient of the gratuity.” S. Rep. No. 93-690, at 42.

In 1977, the Committee again reported that “[t]ips are not wages, and under the 1974 amendments tips must be retained by the employees . . . and cannot be paid to the employer or otherwise used by the employer to offset his wage obligation, except to the extent permitted by section [20]3(m).” S. Rep. No. 95-440 at 368 (1977) (emphasis added). The use of the word “or” supports the DOL’s interpretation of the FLSA because it implies that the only acceptable use by an employer of employee tips is a tip credit.

Additionally, we find that the purpose of the FLSA does not support the view that Congress clearly intended to permanently allow employers that do not take a tip credit to do whatever they wish with their employees’ tips. The district courts’ reading that the FLSA provides “specific statutory protections” related only to “substandard wages and oppressive working hours” is too narrow. As previously noted, the FLSA is a broad and remedial act that Congress has frequently expanded and extended.

Considering the statements in the relevant legislative history and the purpose and structure of the FLSA, we find that the DOL’s interpretation is more closely aligned with Congressional intent, and at the very least, that the DOL’s interpretation is reasonable.

Finally, the court explained that it was not overruling Woody Woo, because Woody Woo had been decided prior to the enactment of the regulation at issue when there was regulatory silence on the issue, whereas this case was decided after the 2011 DOL regulations filled that silence.

This case is likely to have wide-ranging impacts throughout the country because previously district court’s have largely simply ignored the 2011 regulations like the lower court’s here, incorrectly relying on the Woody Woo case which pre-dated the regulation.

Click Oregon Rest. & Lodging Ass’n v. Perez to read the entire decision.

E.D.Pa.: Late Payment of Wages Constitutes Non-Payment of Wages, Subjecting Employer to Liquidated Damages Under FLSA

Gordon v. Maxim Healthcare Services, Inc.

This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint for failure to state a claim. The issue before the court was whether a defendant/employer who makes payment to its employee of his or her wages, but does so 1 week after such wages are due, is nonetheless liable for liquidated damages under the FLSA. Answering the question in the affirmative, the court held that late payment (in this case 1 week after the regular payday) constituted non-payment under the FLSA, and therefore liquidated damages were due under the FLSA notwithstanding the fact the employer had ultimately made payment of the wages due.

As a starting point for deciding the issue, the court examined the purpose of liquidated damages, as stated previously stated by the Third Circuit:

[t]hese liquidated damages … compensate employees for the losses they may have suffered by reason of not receiving their proper wages at the time they were due.” Id. at 1299 (emphasis added). Our Court of Appeals clearly contemplated that injury from lost wages under the FLSA is to be measured from the payday on which wages are ordinarily to be paid.

Explaining that the Third Circuit had not spoken on the issue subsequent to the 1991 case, Selker, that it quoted, the court turned to the case law from other circuits for guidance on the issue:

[t]he Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit cited the Selker decision favorably in Biggs v. Wilson, 1 F.3d 1537, 1542 (9th Cir.1993). There the court undertook a detailed analysis of whether late payment constitutes nonpayment under the FLSA. The issue in that case was whether the State of California, in paying its highway maintenance workers 14–15 days late as a result of a budget impasse, violated the FLSA. Drawing on the language of the statute, mandatory and persuasive authority from other federal courts including Selker, the opinion of the Department of Labor, and policy considerations, the court concluded that payment at a point after payday is tantamount to nonpayment under the FLSA.   Id . at 1539–44. Invited by the state to craft a balancing test to distinguish late payment from nonpayment, the court found that any such line drawing would be unworkable under the statutory scheme and detrimental to employees seeking the statute’s protection. Id. at 1540.

Squaring Third Circuit jurisprudence with that of the Ninth Circuit, the Court held “that late payment of wages is the equivalent of nonpayment for purposes of the FLSA.

The court also rejected the argument that this was an overly harsh result, especially because of the FLSA’s remedial purpose:

This may appear to be a harsh result, causing an otherwise diligent employer who misses payday by a day or two to be subject to liability under the statute. Nonetheless, it must be remembered that the FLSA is to be liberally construed to achieve its purpose. Mitchell v. Lublin, McGaughy & Assocs., 358 U.S. 207, 211, 79 S.Ct. 260, 3 L.Ed.2d 243 (1959). The law is there to protect those who are receiving a minimum wage and are living from paycheck to paycheck. A delay of a few days or a week in the remittance of wages may only be a minor inconvenience to some, but for those at the lower end of the economic scale, even a brief delay can have serious and immediate adverse consequences.

Thus, the court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss.  

Click Gordon v. Maxim Healthcare Services, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion.

Editor’s Note:  Within weeks of this decision, the Court of Federal Claims was called upon to rule upon the same issue and agreed with the Gordon court’s analysis and holding.  In the context of government workers, whose paychecks were delayed approximately 2 weeks, by the government’s shutdown in the fall of 2013, the court held that late payment constitutes non-payment, such that the FLSA’s liquidated damages provisions were triggered.  Click Martin v. United States to read the Opinion and Order in that case.

DOL Announces It Will Not Enforce New Regulations Regarding FLSA Rights of Home Health Workers for First 6 Months of 2015

The Department of Labor’s (Department) October 1, 2013, Final Rule amending regulations regarding domestic service employment, which extends the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) minimum wage and overtime protections to most home care workers will become effective on January 1, 2015. However, by an announcement dated October 6, 2014, the DOL advised that it will not be enforcing the regulations for the first 6 months that the regulations are in effect.

Critically important, while the DOL will not be bringing enforcement actions—as it is able to do under the FLSA—this announcement does not effect home health workers’ rights to bring private enforcement actions themselves through private lawsuits.

In a thoughtful commentary regarding the importance of the new regulation, issued on his blog on the day of the DOL’s recent announcement, former Deputy Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, Seth Harris, has this to say:

Home health workers are the people who care for people with disabilities and seniors so that they may live in the community rather than in nursing homes or other institutions.  Their work is essential.  They allow each of us to rest assured that we will be able to live in dignity in our homes if age, happenstance, or genetics result in physical, mental, or developmental disabilities.  Yet, these workers have not been protected by the federal minimum wage or the requirement that workers who work more than 40 hours in a week receive overtime pay for those additional hours.  These requirements are found in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Home health workers have been excluded from the FLSA.  On January 1, that exclusion ends.  Home health workers will be entitled to at least the federal minimum wage and time-and-one-half for overtime worked beginning New Year’s Day.

While Harris went further to explain that he thought that the new regulations would likely lack teeth, in light of this delayed enforcement policy—given the relatively small sums of money individuals stand to lose from unscrupulous employers who ignore the new regulation—that may not turn out to be accurate. While many smaller home health agencies will likely feel free to skirt the new regulation, at least initially, most of the larger national home health agencies have already put the wheels in motion to make the necessary changes to comply with the new law about to go into effect. However, if you are a home health worker, who is still being denied your rightful minimum wages and/or overtime pay, after the new law goes into effect on January 1, 2015, you should contact a wage and hour lawyer to investigate whether you have a claim to recover your rightful wages.

Click DOL Announcement to read the official announcement, and Harris Blog to read Seth Harris’ commentary on this issue.

Courts Continue to Hold That Exotic Dancers Are Misclassified as Independent Contractors When Actually Employees; Entitled to Minimum Wage For All Hours Worked

If you are someone who follows the trends in wage and hour law, you are no doubt aware of the recent proliferation of cases in which exotic dancers or strippers have challenged the seemingly industry wide misclassification of their positions.  Whereas adult entertainment clubs have classified their exotic dancers as independent contractors for many years, for almost the same duration of time, courts have held that such a classification is erroneous and that the dancers are actually “employees,” as defined by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  In the continuing cat and mouse game, clubs typically utilize the misclassification of independent contractor, reap the additional profits, and only change their classification of the position if and when they are called to task when same is challenged in a lawsuit—typically brought by a dancer no longer employed by the club.  In the two decisions discussed below, two addition courts joined the overwhelming majority of courts to have opined on the issue—albeit with slightly different fact patterns—and held that exotic dancers are “employees” and not independent contractors, as the clubs had classified them.

Butler v. PP & G, Inc.

In the first case, the court—in the District of Maryland—summarized the relevant facts as follows:

Defendant PP & G, Inc. is the owner and operator of Norma Jean’s Nite Club, a night club located in Baltimore that features semi-nude female dancers. Plaintiff Unique S. Butler worked at various times as an exotic dancer at Norma Jean’s until August 2012, when she alleges that she was terminated.

Defendant has always classified the dancers who perform at Norma Jean’s as independent contractors. Defendant asserts that the dancers are permitted to elect, in writing, to become either an employee or independent contractor. To date, no dancer, including Plaintiff, has elected to be classified as an employee.

There is no dispute that, during her time as an exotic dancer at Norma Jean’s, Plaintiff did not receive compensation in the form of hourly wages. Rather, the only compensation Plaintiff received for her work as an exotic dancer was from customer tips. Defendant contends that dancers were permitted to keep the entirety of their tips, save a non-mandatory, $45 cleaning or maintenance fee that they could pay to the club per shift. Following her separation from Norma Jean’s, Plaintiff filed the present lawsuit against PP & G, Inc., arguing that, because she was misclassified by Defendant as an independent contractor rather than an employee, Defendant illegally failed to pay her wages. She claims that, as an employee, she is entitled to back pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 201 et seq. (“FLSA”), and the Maryland Wage Payment and Collection Law, Md.Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. §§ 3–501 et seq. (“MWPCL”). Defendant argues that Plaintiff elected to be an independent contractor, and thus was not entitled to wages under the FLSA and MWPCL.

After laying out the factors to be applied under the “economic reality” test, the court explained that the factors required a finding that the dancers were employees:

The ultimate question for the Court’s consideration is whether the dancers were, “as a matter of economic reality, dependent on the business they served, or, conversely, whether they were in business for themselves.” Schultz, 466 F.3d at 305.

With regard to the first factor, “degree of control,” the court discussed same specifically in regard to voluminous case law that has now developed regarding exotic dancers:

Courts considering the status of exotic dancers under the FLSA generally look not only to the guidelines set by the club regarding the entertainers’ performances and behavior, but also to the club’s control over the atmosphere and clientele. For example, in Reich v. Circle C. Investments, Inc., 998 F.2d 324 (5th Cir.1993), the court determined that the club exerted significant control where the defendant set weekly work schedules, fined the dancers for absences and tardiness, set price levels for table dances and couch dances, set standards for costumes, and managed song selection, among other things. Id. at 327. Similarly, in Morse v. Mer Corp., the defendant exercised control by publishing “Entertainer Guidelines” that set minimum shift lengths, minimum charges, and behavioral prohibitions. No. 1:08–cv–1389–WTL–JMS, 2010 WL 2346334, at *3 (S.D. Ind. June 4, 2010). Additionally, although the court in Priba Corp. noted that the defendant exercised control over the entertainers by setting show times and establishing behavioral guidelines, it emphasized that “the real touchstone” of the control factor was the “reality of the employment relationship.” 890 F.Supp. at 592. Thus, the Priba court focused on the dancers’ dependence on the club for earnings, and the club’s control over advertising and atmosphere. Id.

Here, unlike in many of the cases involving exotic dancers, see, e.g., Hart v. Rick’s Cabaret Int’l, Inc., ––– F.Supp.2d ––––, 2013 WL 4822199, at *6 (S.D.N.Y.2013) (club exerted control where it had written behavioral guidelines, imposed fines, and imposed a dress code); Thompson v. Linda And A., Inc., 779 F.Supp.2d 139, 148 (D.D.C.2011) (significant control exercised where dancers were required to “sign in,” follow a schedule, were permitted to dance only for set durations, and the defendant enforced certain behavioral rules); Harrell v. Diamond A Entertainment, Inc., 992 F.Supp. 1343, 1349–50 (M.D.Fla.1997) (economic dependence found where the club set fees, had a “stage rotation,” controlled customer volume and atmosphere, and required dancers to abide by written rules and regulations), Defendant does not appear to manage the day-to-day aspects of the dancers’ performance. Defendant does not create work schedules for the dancers, but rather permits them to work at other clubs and to “come and go as they please.” Walter Alexander Robinson, III Dep. 45:15–21, 79:1–4, Aug. 9, 2013. Defendant did not mandate that Plaintiff dress or dance a certain way, did not limit the amount of lap dances she could perform, and did not limit the number of beverages a customer could purchase for her. Unique S. Butler Dep. 40:1–10, Aug. 9, 2013. The only behavioral guidelines that Defendant required Plaintiff to follow were those set by the Maryland State Liquor Board and the adult entertainment laws. Robinson Dep. 51:1–14.

Defendant asserts that the only fee imposed on the Plaintiff was a non-mandatory $45 cleaning or maintenance fee. Id. at 71:10–14. Although Defendant recommends a minimum fee for lap dances, the manager testified that each dancer can set her own fee. Id. at 55:13–56:4. Plaintiff asserts that Defendant also imposed a “late fee,” mandated that she pay the DJ prior to getting on stage, and required her to tip the house mom. Butler Dep. 20:9–13, 31:14–32:9. Plaintiff also stated that Defendant required her to dance at particular times. Id. at 19:11–19. Further, she testified that, if dancers were sanctioned for any matter, they were instructed to work the day shift as punishment. Id. at 32:6–15.

It is undisputed, however, that the Defendant alone is responsible for advertising and creating the atmosphere of the club. Robinson Dep. 30:16–20 (“Q [:] The Defendant is responsible for the advertising, location, business hours, maintenance of facility, aesthetics, and inventory of beverages and food? A [:] Yes. There’s no food.”); 33:6–12 (“Q[:] Okay. The Plaintiff’s employment with Defendant was dependent on Defendant’s financial savvy and business know-how to keep Defendant’s business financially sound so as to keep the doors open and afford Plaintiff the opportunity to work at Norma Jean’s Nightclub? A [:] Yes.”). Like in Priba Corp., the visibility and quality of the club itself “dictates the flow of customers into the club.” 890 F.Supp. at 592. Plaintiff is thus entirely dependent on the Defendant to provide her with customers, and her economic status “is inextricably linked to those conditions over which [Defendant has] complete control.” Id.

Thus, although viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the Defendant suggests that Defendant does not exercise control over the day-to-day decisions and work of its dancers, it exercises significant control over the atmosphere, clientele, and operation of the club. Thus, this factor likely tips in favor of economic dependence, as Defendant exclusively controls the flow of customers, on which Plaintiff depended for her income.

Applying the second factor, “opportunity for profit or loss,” the court held that same supported a finding of employment, based on the defendant’s acknowledgement that plaintiff did not share in the profits or losses of the club.  The court similarly held that plaintiff made virtually no investment in  equipment or material, the third factor considered, and the little or no skill was required for her job (the fourth factor).

While the court acknowledged that the fifth factor, “permanence of the working relationship was not as clear, it nonetheless concluded that, the mere fact that the plaintiff was free to come and go as she pleased and work at other clubs, did not belie classification as an employee:

As to the permanence and duration of the working relationship, Plaintiff was generally permitted to work without a specified end date and could come and go as she pleased. Robinson Dep. 45:15–21, 79:1–4. Additionally, she was free to work at other adult entertainment clubs. This factor tends to weigh in favor of independent contractor status. As other courts have noted in considering this factor, however, “it is entitled to only modest weight in assessing employee status under the FLSA.” Hart, ––– F.Supp.2d at ––––, 2013 WL 4822199, at *14; see also Priba Corp., 890 F.Supp. at 593 (“Because dancers tend to be itinerant, the court must focus on the nature of their dependence.”). As the District Court for the Southern District of New York recently noted in regard to a similar challenge, “[t]hat dancers were free to work at other clubs or in other lines of work, and that they were not permanent employees, do[es] not distinguish them from countless workers in other areas of endeavor who are undeniably employees under the FLSA-for example, waiters, ushers, and bartenders.” Hart, ––– F.Supp.2d at ––––, 2013 WL 4822199, at *14.

Finally, the court dismissed the defendant’s argument that plaintiff’s services were not of an “integral nature” to its business operations:

It is undisputed that Defendant maintains an adult entertainment business at Norma Jean’s Nite Club. Defendant asserts that, although the club features dancers, dancers are not integral to the operation of the business. Rather, Defendant characterizes Norma Jean’s as “a sports bar” with pool tables, and contends that dancers constitute but one of the features. Robinson Dep. 19:5–10, 31:2–7. Defendant states that it makes all of its profits off of the sale of alcoholic beverages, not the exotic dancers.

Courts have routinely noted that the presence of exotic dancers are “essential,” or “obviously very important,” to the success of a topless nightclub. See, e.g., Harrell, 922 F.Supp. at 1352; Martin v. Circle C. Invs., Inc., No. MO–91–CA–43, 1991 WL 338239, at *4 (W.D.Tex. Mar. 27, 1991). For example, the court in Hart stated, in considering the club owners’ argument that “the Club’s restaurant, bar, and televisions served to attract customers,” that “[n]o reasonable jury could conclude that exotic dancers were not integral to the success of a club that marketed itself as a club for exotic dancers.” ––– F.Supp.2d at ––––, 2013 WL 4822199, at *14.

Here, any contention that the exotic dancers were not integral to the operation of Norma Jean’s flies in the face of logic. The presence of the exotic dancers was clearly a major attraction of the club, and increased significantly the sales of alcoholic beverages and, accordingly, the profits earned by PP & G. Further, unlike the club in Hart, Norma Jean’s does not serve food or have a restaurant. Rather, the only attractions, aside from exotic dancers, are televisions and pool tables. Because no reasonable jury could determine that exotic dancers were not integral to the success of Norma Jean’s, this factor also tips in favor of employee status.

Holding that all factors together supported an employment relationship the court concluded:

Considering the preceding factors in conjunction, and resolving all disputes of fact in favor of the Defendant, the Court concludes that Plaintiff was an employee, not an independent contractor, at Norma Jean’s Nite Club. Although Defendant asserts that Plaintiff elected to become an independent contractor, neither the label placed on an employment relationship, nor an individual’s subjective belief about her employment status, are dispositive. See, e.g., Clincy v. Galardi South Enterprises, Inc., 808 F.Supp.2d 1326, 1329 (N.D.Ga.2011). Defendant controlled the economic opportunity of the Plaintiff. Plaintiff did not have the opportunity for profit or loss, did not invest in the club, and did not have any specialized skills. Moreover, work of the type performed by Plaintiff as an exotic dancer is integral to the operation of the club. Regardless of the Defendant’s characterization of the relationship as that of an independent contractor, “[w]here the work done, in its essence, follows the usual path of an employee, putting on an ‘independent contractor’ label does not take the worker from the protection of the [Fair Labor Standards] Act.” Rutherford, 331 U.S. at 729.

Click Butler v. PP & G, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum opinion.

Stevenson v. Great American Dream, Inc.

In a second recent opinion, on very similar facts, a court within the Northern District of Georgia reached the same conclusion.  Applying the same “economic reality” test to the facts before it, the court explained:

To begin, this is not a matter of first impression for this Court. In Clincy v. Galardi South Enterprises, Inc., 808 F.Supp.2d 1326 (N.D.Ga.2011), this Court found that adult entertainers-working under conditions similar to the Plaintiffs in this action-were “employees” protected by the FLSA. Many other courts have reached the same conclusion. See Reich v. Circle C. Investments, Inc., 998 F.2d 324 (5th Cir.1993); Reich v. Priba Corp., 890 F.Supp. 586 (N.D.Tex.1995); Harrell v. Diamond A Entertainment, Inc., 992 F.Supp. 1343 (M.D.Fla.1997); Morse v. Mer Corp., 1:08–CV–1389–WTL–JMS, 2010 WL 2346334 (S.D. Ind. June 4, 2010); Hart v. Rick’s Cabaret Intern., Inc., No. 09 Civ. 3043, 2013 WL 4822199 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 10, 2013).

Here, five out of the six factors support finding “employee” status. First, Pin Ups exercised a significant amount of control over the Plaintiffs. The Plaintiffs were issued a document titled “General Policies and Procedures.” (Pls.’ Statement of Facts ¶ 59.) These rules laid out standards for appropriate dress5 and how the entertainers were to conduct themselves on stage. (Id., Ex. 4.) They also stipulated that the DJ would ultimately select the music that the entertainers would perform to. (Id.) These rules applied not only to how the Plaintiffs conducted themselves on the main stage, but also to how they conducted themselves in the VIP room. (Id.) Further, these rules were enforced. Violations could result in dismissal. (Id. ¶¶ 16–17.) The “house moms” made sure that the Plaintiffs complied with the appearance standards. (Id. ¶ 23.) If there was a dispute regarding proper dress, the manager would make the final call. (Id. 43.) In addition to these regulations, the Plaintiffs were required to pay several fees. Upon arriving for a shift, they had to pay a house fee. (Id. ¶¶ 31–32.) They also paid fees that went to the house mom and the DJ. (Id. ¶¶ 22, 24.) Moreover, Pin Ups was responsible for settling disputes arising within the club. For example, disputes concerning the entertainer tip pool were resolved by the house mom and the manager. (Id. ¶ 49.) Pin Ups also handled disputes between the Plaintiffs and the customers. (Id. ¶ 18.) The Defendants argue that the entertainers could set their own schedules. But this was true in several cases where courts found that the entertainers were nonetheless employees. See, e.g., Priba Corp., 890 F.Supp. at 591; Harrell, 992 F.Supp. at 1348. Control over scheduling is minimal compared to all of the elements of the job that Pin Ups controlled. See Usery, 527 F.2d at 1312 (“Each operator is given the right to set her own hours … [i]n the total context of the relationship … the right to set hours [does not indicate] such lack of control by [the defendant] as would show these operators are independent from it …. [c]ontrol is only significant when it shows an individual … stands as a separate economic entity.”). Here, “the entertainer’s economic status is inextricably linked to those conditions over which defendants have complete control.” Priba Corp., 890 F.Supp. at 592.

Second, the Plaintiffs and Pin Ups did not share equally in the opportunities for profit and loss. Although the Plaintiffs risked a loss equal to the fees they paid-assuming they made nothing in tips-“The risk of loss [was] much greater for the Club.” Clincy v. Galardi South Enterprises, Inc., 808 F.Supp.2d 1326, 1346 (N.D.Ga.2011). It bore the vast majority of overhead costs. Pin Ups also had more of an impact on potential profits. It was “primarily responsible for attracting customers to the Club, as decisions about marketing and promotions for the Club, its location, its maintenance, aesthetics, and atmosphere, and food and alcohol availability and pricing are made by” Pin Ups. Id. The Defendants argue that the entertainers could earn more profit based on their interactions with the customers. (Defs.’ Resp. to Mot. for Summ. J., at 17–18.) This argument was rejected in Clincy. See Clincy, 808 F.Supp.2d at 1345–46. The Plaintiffs’ control over profits was minor compared to Pin Ups’. “[B]ut for defendants’ provision of the lavish work environment, the entertainers at the club likely would earn nothing.” Priba Corp., 890 F.Supp. at 593.

Third, Pin Ups invested far more than the Plaintiffs on necessary personnel and equipment. It provided bartenders, waitresses, cashiers, security staff, and disc jockeys. (Pls.’ Statement of Facts ¶¶ 12–13, 70.) Pin Ups also provided the facility, the stages, and the poles. (Id. ¶ 71.) As other courts have noted, the amount spent on clothing, hair styling, and make-up “is minor when compared to the club’s investment.” Harrell, 992 F.Supp. at 1350; see also Reich, 998 F.2d at 328 (“A dancer’s investment in costumes and a padlock is relatively minor to the considerable investment Circle C has in operating a nightclub.”). Many employees in many different fields are also financially responsible for maintaining an appearance suitable to their respective work environments.

Fourth, little skill is required. Pin Ups does not require that its entertainers undergo formal training. (Id. ¶ 73.) The Defendants argue that the entertainers get better as they gain experience. Although different entertainers may possess varying degrees of skill, there is no indication that a high degree of skill or experience is necessary. Taking your clothes off on a nightclub stage and dancing provocatively are not the kinds of special skills that suggest independent contractor status. See Priba Corp., 890 F.Supp. at 593 (“The scope of her initiative is restricted to decisions involving what clothes to wear or how provocatively to dance. Such limited initiative is more consistent with the status of an employee than an independent contractor.”).

Fifth, and most definitively, the Plaintiffs’ services were an integral part of Pin Ups’ business. Pin Ups is an adult entertainment club and so it needs adult entertainers. Kelly Campbell, the general manager of Pin Ups, acknowledged this. (Campbell Dep. at 20.) (“Because we are an entertainment facility and we could not be such without an entertainer.”). Pin Ups’ General Policies and Procedures issued to the entertainers states: “Your job as an entertainer is the most important one in our organization.” (Pls.’ Statement of Facts, Ex. 4.)

The court did recognize that the final factor did not necessarily weigh in favor of an employment relationship, but—citing some of the identical language as the Butler court had—it held that same was not terribly important in its inquiry:

Only the duration factor supports the Defendants’ position. There is no indication that all of the Plaintiffs worked at Pin Ups for an extended period of time, and all of the Plaintiffs were permitted to work as entertainers at other clubs. However, “[t]hat dancers were free to work at other clubs or in other lines of work, and that they were not permanent employees, do not distinguish them from countless workers in other areas of endeavor who are undeniably employees under the FLSA-for example, waiters, ushers, and bartenders.” Hart, 2013 WL 4822199, at *14. In light of the other factors, this alone cannot nudge the Plaintiffs out of the protective sphere of the FLSA.7 See Reich, 998 F.2d at 328–29 (“The transient nature of the work force is not enough here to remove the dancers from the protections of the FLSA. In analyzing the … factors, we must not lose sight of economic reality.”).

Click Stevenson v. Great American Dream, Inc. to read the complete Opinion and Order.

DOL Announces Final Rule Extending Minimum Wage and Overtime Pay to Home Health Workers

In an announcement that has long been awaited by workers advocates and those in the home health industry as well, today the United States Department of Labor (DOL) announced a final rule, to go into effect on January 1, 2015, which extends the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime protections to home health aides that perform typical CNA tasks in the homes of the aged and infirm.  In an email blast, the DOL reported:

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division announced a final rule today extending the Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage and overtime protections to most of the nation’s direct care workers who provide essential home care assistance to elderly people and people with illnesses, injuries, or disabilities. This change, effective January 1, 2015, ensures that nearly two million workers – such as home health aides, personal care aides, and certified nursing assistants – will have the same basic protections already provided to most U.S. workers. It will help ensure that individuals and families who rely on the assistance of direct care workers have access to consistent and high quality care from a stable and increasingly professional workforce.

Among other things, the final rule overrules the 2007 holding of the Supreme Court in Long Island Care at Home, Ltd. v. Coke, and requires 3rd party employers such as staffing agencies to pay companions and home health workers overtime under the FLSA when they work in excess of 40 hours per week.

The New York Times provides a pretty good synopsis of the changes to the Companionship Exemption, provided by the final rule:

Under the new rule, any home care aides hired through home care companies or other third-party agencies cannot be exempt from minimum wage and overtime coverage. The exemptions for aides who mainly provide “companionship services” — defined as fellowship and protection for an elderly person or person with an illness, injury or disability who requires assistance — are limited to the individual, family or household using the services.

If an aide or companion provides “care” that exceeds 20 percent of the total hours she works each week, then the worker is to receive minimum wage and overtime protections.

The new rule defines care as assisting with the activities of daily living, like dressing, grooming, feeding or bathing, and assisting with “instrumental activities of daily living,” like meal preparation, driving, light housework, managing finances and assisting with the physical taking of medications.

The companionship exemption will not apply if the aide or companion provides medically related services that are typically performed by trained personnel, like nurses or certified nursing assistants.

Live-in domestic service workers who reside in the employer’s home and are employed by an individual, family or household are exempt from overtime pay, although they must be paid at least the federal minimum wage for all hours worked.

Click Final Rule to read the published rule, or U.S. News and Report to read an article discussing the announcement.

9th Cir.: Late Payment of Wages Constitutes a Minimum Wage Violation Under the FLSA

Rother v. Lupenko

As with many concepts in the law, many practitioners know something to be true, but they are not exactly sure why or what the authority for the position is. Such seems to be true with regard to the notion that an employer’s failure to tender an employee’s paycheck on the regular payday, constitutes a minimum wage violation. For anyone who is ever faced with this issue, a recent decision from the Ninth Circuit provides clear authority for this position. After a jury verdict in the plaintiff’s favor, all parties appealed various parts of the final judgment. As discussed here, the plaintiff appealed the District Court’s Order granting the defendants summary judgment on her late last paycheck (minimum wage) claim. The Ninth Circuit reversed the decision and held that the defendants failure to tender the plaintiff’s final paycheck on the normal payday was a minimum wage violation under the FLSA.

Briefly discussing the issue, the court reasoned:

Although there is no provision in the FLSA that explicitly requires an employer to pay its employees in a timely fashion, this Circuit has read one into the Act. Biggs v. Wilson, 1 F.3d 1537, 1541 (9th Cir.1993). In Biggs, we held that payment must be made on payday, and that a late payment immediately becomes a violation equivalent to non-payment. Id. at 1540. “After [payday], the minimum wage is ‘unpaid.’ ” Id. at 1544. The district court misread Biggs. For purposes of the FLSA, there is no distinction between late payment violations and minimum wage violations: late payment is a minimum wage violation. See id. Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s entry of summary judgment for Defendants on Plaintiffs’ federal minimum wage claim.

Click Rother v. Lupenko to read the entire Memorandum Opinion.

11th Cir.: Student Externs, Required to Complete Externship in Order to Graduate, Were Not “Employees”

Kaplan v.Code Blue Billing & Coding, Inc.

This case was before the court on the consolidated appeal of three student externs who sued the administrators of their respective externships asserting that they had not been paid proper minimum wages. The courts below had all granted the respective defendants summary judgment, holding that the plaintiffs could not satisfy the “economic reality” test, and therefore they were not “employees” subject to the FLSA’s coverage. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, applying the DOL’s six-factor test applicable to trainees. In so doing, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ contentions that the defendants benefitted from their work, while they essentially received no academic or monetary benefit.

The court reasoned:

Although Kaplan and O’Neill argue that their externship experiences were of little educational benefit, they did in fact engage in hands-on work for their formal degree program. Kaplan and O’Neill also received academic credit for their work and, by completing an externship, were eligible to earn their degrees.

Kaplan and O’Neill argue that, because they were performing tasks for Defendants’ businesses, Defendants benefitted economically from their work. The undisputed evidence, however, demonstrates that Defendants’ staff spent time—time away from their own regular duties—training Plaintiffs and supervising and reviewing Plaintiffs’ work. Even viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, Plaintiffs caused Defendants’ businesses to run less efficiently and caused at least some duplication of effort. Defendants received little if any economic benefit from Plaintiffs’ work. Thus, under the “economic realities” test, Plaintiffs were not “employees” within the meaning of the FLSA. See New Floridian Hotel, Inc., 676 F.2d at 470.

The Eleventh Circuit applied the DOL’s six factor test, derived from the Supreme Court’s decision in Portland Terminal—pertinent to determining whether a trainee qualifies as an employee under the FLSA, to reach its holding.

As explained in footnote 2, under the Administrator’s test, a trainee is not an “employee” if these six factors apply:

(1) the training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school; (2) the training is for the benefit of the trainees; (3) the trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close supervision; (4) the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion his operations may actually be impeded; (5) the trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and, (6) the employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training. Wage & Hour Manual (BNA) 91:416 (1975); see also Donovan v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 686 F.2d 267, 273 n. 7 (5th Cir.1982).

Reasoning that the externs at issue were not “employees” the court concluded:

The externship programs at Code Blue and EFEI satisfy all six of the Administrator’s criteria. The training provided was similar to that which would be given in school and was related to Plaintiffs’ course of study. The training benefitted Plaintiffs, who received academic credit for their work and who satisfied a precondition of graduation. Both Kaplan and O’Neill were supervised closely and did not displace Defendants’ regular employees. Defendants received no immediate advantage from Plaintiffs’ work and, at times, were impeded by their efforts to help train and supervise Plaintiffs. And both Kaplan and O’Neill admit that they were unentitled to a job after their externships and that they understood that the externship would be unpaid.

Click Kaplan v.Code Blue Billing & Coding, Inc. to read the entire decision.

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

Hess v. Madera Honda Suzuki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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