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D.Md.: Employer-Owner Could Not Share in Employee Tip Pool Under FLSA, Regardless of Extent of His Bartending Activities
Gionfriddo v. Jason Zink, LLC
In this case tipped employees challenged the validity of the employer’s tip pool, due to the participation of “non-tipped employees” in the tip pool. The case was before the court on a variety of motions. Of significance here, the parties moved by cross motions for summary judgment on the issue of whether the defendant’s tip pool arrangement was valid or not. The court held that the owner-operators participation in the tip pool necessarily rendered it invalid, notwithstanding the fact that he regularly bartended side by side with his tipped employer bartenders. In doing so, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that an owner-operator, who earns primarily tips, can transform himself into a tipped employee, such that he may permissibly participate in a tip pool with other tipped employees.
The court reasoned:
“As previously mentioned, the Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted to eliminate “labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers.” Pub.L. No. 75-718, 52 Stat. 1060 (1938) (codified as amended at 29 U.S.C. §§ 201 et seq.). To effectuate this aim, the FLSA requires that employees be paid a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(1)(c). An exception exists for “tipped employees.” “Tipped employees” are those employees that are “engaged in an occupation in which [they] customarily and regularly receive[ ] more than $30 a month in tips.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(t). Those employees are required to receive at least the minimum wage, but their employers are permitted to pay a direct wage of $2.13 per hour and then take a “tip credit” to meet the $7.25 per hour minimum wage requirement. 29 U.S.C. § 203(m). In other words, an employer satisfies the FLSA if he pays his tipped employees at least $2.13 per hour, and that wage, in conjunction with the tips they receive, make up at least the $7.25 per hour minimum wage. Employees are permitted to share tips through a tip pooling or tip splitting arrangement so long as each employee customarily receive more than $30 per month in tips. 29 C.F.R. § 531.54. However, “[i]f tipped employees are required to participate in a tip pool with other employees who do not customarily receive tips, then the tip pool is invalid and the employer is not permitted to take a ‘tip credit.’ “ Wajcman v. Inv. Corp. of Palm Beach, 620 F.Supp.2d 1353, 1356 n. 3 (S.D.Fla.2009) (citing 29 U.S.C. § 203(m)). In the present case, the bartenders at the Taverns participated in a collective tip pool that was divided up according to a formula that accounts for the hours worked by each bartender.
Mr. Zink worked as a bartender at the Taverns and concedes that he participated in the tip pool. Mr. Zink also concedes that he satisfies the definition of “employer” under Section 203(d) of the FLSA. See Defs.’ Cross Mot. Summ. J. at 24, ECF No. 51-1. Both parties agree that bartending is typically a tipped occupation. Where the parties disagree, however, is on the question of whether an “employer” may also be a “tipped employee” and receive a share of the tip pool. Defendants argue that despite his status as an employer, Mr. Zink is nevertheless permitted to share in the tip pool because he can simultaneously be an “employer” and a tipped “employee” under the FLSA. In other words, because Mr. Zink works as a bartender, a position that ordinarily receives tips, his status as an employer is immaterial to the FLSA analysis. Plaintiffs respond by arguing that allowing Mr. Zink to simultaneously benefit from the “tip credit” exception to the minimum wage requirements and at the same time personally receive tips would be completely contradictory to the purpose behind the FLSA. Plaintiffs maintain that Mr. Zink, as the sole owner of the Taverns, and the Plaintiffs’ employer, simply may not participate in a tip pool, and that to the extent he did participate in a tip pool, that tip pool is invalid under the FLSA. In short, the question before this Court is to what extent, if any, an owner-employer who also tends bar is permitted to receive tips from an employee tip pool.
This precise question is an issue of first impression in this District and in the Fourth Circuit, but not elsewhere. Every court that has considered the issue has unequivocally held that the FLSA expressly prohibits employers from participating in employee tip pools. “Congress, in crafting the tip credit provision of section 3(m) of the FLSA did not create a middle ground allowing an employer both to take the tip credit and share employees’ tips.” Chung v. New Silver Palace Restaurant, Inc., 246 F.Supp.2d 220, 230 (S.D.N.Y.2002); see also, e.g., Morgan v. SpeakEasy, LLC, 625 F.Supp.2d 632, 652 (N.D.Ill.2007) (quoting Chung, 246 F.Supp.2d at 230); Ayres v. 127 Restaurant Corp., 12 F.Supp.2d 305, 308-09 (S.D.N.Y.1998) (finding tip pool invalid as a result of general manager’s participation); Davis v. B & S, Inc., 38 F.Supp.2d 707, 714 (N.D.Ind.1998) (“an employer is not eligible to take the tip credit, and will be liable for reimbursing an employee the full minimum wage that employee would have earned, if the employer exercises control over a portion of the employee’s tips”).
Despite the clear weight of authority holding that employers may not participate in employee tip pools, Defendants seek to carve out a novel legal question where there is none. Essentially, Defendants argue that the analysis undergirding the cases holding that employers may not participate in employee tip pools is fundamentally flawed because those courts considered the issue under the faulty premise that a particular individual may only be an employer or a tipped employee, and not both. See Defs.’ Cross Mot. Summ. J. at 26-34, ECF No. 51-1; Defs.’ Reply at 16, ECF No. 58. Defendants rely on a textual interpretation of the FLSA, and argue that as a result of the Act’s broad definition of “employer,” it is also possible for an employer to be a tipped employee if that person participates in an activity that customarily receives tips, such as bartending. Id. In this regard, Defendants are mistaken-the cases holding that employers may not participate in employee tip pools do not take the position that under no circumstances will an “employer” be prohibited from participating in a tip pool-indeed, in close cases courts have gone to great lengths to determine whether a person who possesses some managerial control may be considered a “tipped employee” under the FLSA. For example, in Rudy v. Consol. Restaurant Cos., No. 3:08-CV-0904-L, 2010 WL 3565418 (N.D.Tex. Aug. 18, 2010), the district court considered whether maître d’s, who possessed some managerial authority over regular restaurant waiters, were properly considered “tipped employees” as a result of their significant interaction with customers. Id. at *4-9. Similarly, in Davis v. B & S, Incorporated, 38 F.Supp.2d 707, 714 (N.D.Ind.1998), the court found that a material fact existed with regard to whether a general manager could participate in a tip pool and declined to grant summary judgment to the employee. Id. at 717 (“because issues of fact remain as to whether [the general manager] was a ‘tipped employee’ with regard to his work with the disc jockeys, the validity of his participation in the tip pool … cannot be resolved as a matter of law”).”
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