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2d Cir.: Accepted Rule 68 Offers of Judgment Not Subject to Judicial Review for Fairness

Mei Xing Yu v. Hasaki Restaurant Inc.

Clarifying murky law regarding when FLSA settlements require judicial versus when they are self-effectuating, a divided Second Circuit panel recently held that settlement proposals in the form of accepted offers of judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68 are not subject to judicial review and approval. Although FLSA settlements generally require judicial or U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) approval to be enforceable, the Second Circuit held that the statutory language of Rule 68 overrides that conventional wisdom and thus are an exception to the general rule.

In this case, the plaintiff sued his restaurant-employer on behalf of himself and similarly situated employees for overtime violations under the FLSA and New York Labor Law (NYLL).  During the pendency of his lawsuit, the defendant-restaurant sent the plaintiff, an offer of judgment (OJ) pursuant to FRCP 68(a), which the plaintiff accepted. Per FCRP 68, the clerk of the court was required to “enter judgment” once the offer and notice of acceptance had been filed with the court. 

Notwithstanding the clear dictates of FRCP 68, the district court sua sponte ordered the parties to submit the settlement offer to the court for fairness review, relying on the Second Circuit’s opinion in Cheeks v. Freeport Pancake House, Inc., 796 F.3d 199 (2d Cir. 2015), in which, the Second Circuit previously held that stipulated dismissals of FLSA claims under FRCP 41(a) require judicial approval notwithstanding the self-effectuating nature of that rule.  The district court read Cheeks to stand for the proposition that parties to an FLSA claim could not “evade the requirement for judicial (or DOL) approval by way of Rule 68.”

In a 2-1 decision, the Second Circuit held that Cheeks does not extend to FRCP 68 offers of judgment, and that accepted OJs are an exception to the general rule requiring approval of private FLSA settlements.  The majority distinguished FRCP 68(a)’s mandatory dismissal language from FRCP 41(a), which contains an exception to the self-executing nature of the dismissal where a federal statute governing the claim requires court approval. Because FRCP 68(a) contains no such exception to mandatory entry of judgment, the majority declined to read one into the rule.

The majority recognized the Cheeks court’s concern about “private, secret settlements and waivers of an employee’s FLSA rights that the Supreme Court [has] refused to endorse.”  However, the Court reasoned that FRCP 68(a) requires public disclosure of the terms of FLSA settlements—unlike FRCP 41(a) stipulated dismissals—because the accepted offers must be publicly filed on the court’s docket.  Furthermore, the majority reasoned that settlement agreements reached during the course of ongoing litigation in this manner are distinguishable from “private, back‐room compromises that could easily result in exploitation of the worker and the release of his or her rights,” the latter of which are more likely to be tainted by pressure applied by the employer.

The decision, which was the first from any Court of Appeals on this issue resolves a split among district courts in the Second Circuit. It also provides a blueprint for employees and employers who wish to avoid judicial scrutiny of their settlements reached in arm’s length negotiations during litigation.

Click Mei Xing Yu v. Hasaki Restaurant Inc. to read the entire decision.

11th Cir.: Arbitration Clause Requiring Fee/Cost Splitting Violates the FLSA

Hudson v. P.I.P., Inc.

This case was before the Eleventh Circuit on the defendant-employer’s appeal of the district court’s denial of its motion to compel arbitration. Specifically, the district court held that the parties’ agreement to arbitrate was unenforceable because the arbitration clause required each party to bear its own attorneys’ fees and costs. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed in part and vacated and remanded in part, so that the district court could decide whether the offending provision could be severed, which the lower court had already held it could not.

Describing the relevant arbitration clauses at issue, the court explained:

Those arbitration clauses provide:Any dispute arising out of this agreement shall be resolved by mediation or arbitration, each party agrees, the parties will equally divide cost of mediation. Each party to any arbitration will pay its own fees and expense, including attorney fees and will share other fees of arbitration. The arbitrat[or] may conduct the hearing in absence of either party. After notified of such hearing. [sic](Emphasis added).

In his R&R, the magistrate judge determined the language of the arbitration provisions plainly prohibited Appellees from recovering their fees and costs, and thus the fees and costs clauses were unenforceable as they contravened the FLSA. The magistrate judge went on to note the arbitration provisions did not contain severability clauses, and that in the absence of a severability clause, the objectionable language could not be severed. Accordingly, the magistrate judge determined the arbitration provisions were unenforceable in their entirety. PIP filed objections to the R&R, arguing the fees and costs clauses merely required the parties to “pay their own way” while the arbitration is proceeding, and that nothing in the ECAs prohibited the arbitrator from shifting the fee if and when the Appellees were determined to be prevailing parties. And, even if the fees and costs clauses were unenforceable, the magistrate judge erred in concluding the “objectionable language could not be severed solely because the arbitration clauses do not contain a severability provision.” PIP asserted that Eleventh Circuit case law does not hold that any arbitration agreement that contains an unenforceable remedial restriction is completely null and void in the absence of a severability clause. Instead, the court is required to determine whether the unenforceable clauses are severable, which is decided as a matter of state law, here the law of Florida. PIP claimed Florida law allowed an unenforceable clause to be severed as long as the unenforceable clause does not go to the essence of the agreement. Thus, PIP asserted, even if the court were to sever the offending clause, there would still be a valid agreement to resolve employment-related disputes through arbitration.The district court adopted the magistrate judge’s R&R and denied PIP’s motion to compel arbitration after concluding the arbitration provisions in the relevant contracts were unenforceable because they denied the Appellees a substantive right under the FLSA—the right to recover fees and costs pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Furthermore, the court concluded that because the arbitration provisions did not provide for severability, the arbitration provisions were unenforceable in their entirety.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding that the fee/cost splitting provision violated the FLSA. However, it remanded for further decision on whether the offending provision could be severed notwithstanding the absence of a severability clause.

Holding the fee/costs splitting provision to be unenforceable, the court explained:

Appellees contend the arbitration provisions improperly deny them their statutory right to recover fees and costs under the FLSA.The district court did not err in concluding that the statement “[e]ach party to any arbitration will pay its own fees and expense, including attorney fees and will share other fees of arbitration,” does not leave any discretion with the arbitrator to award fees and costs. (Emphasis added). We have held the terms of an arbitration clause regarding remedies must be “fully consistent with the purposes underlying any statutory claims subject to arbitration.” Paladino v. Avnet Comput. Techs., Inc., 134 F.3d 1054, 1059 (11th Cir. 1998). Thus, the clause providing that each party will pay its own fees and costs is unenforceable, as the FLSA allows fees and costs as part of a plaintiff’s award. Id. at 1062 (“When an arbitration clause has provisions that defeat the remedial purpose of the statute, … the arbitration clause is not enforceable.”); 29 U.S.C. § 216(b)… Appellees have met their burden of establishing that enforcement of the fees and costs clauses in the arbitration provisions would preclude them from effectively vindicating their federal statutory rights in the arbitral forum. See id. at 1259. Thus, the district court did not err in concluding the fees and costs clauses are unenforceable.

However, the Court rejected the portion of the district court’s opinion which had held–consistent with Florida law–that the absence of a severability clause rendered the arbitration cause unenforceable in its entirety. As such, it reversed and remanded this issue for further consideration, reasoning:

The district court then reasoned that if the arbitration provisions contained a severability clause, the offending clauses could potentially be severed. Because the ECAs did not contain a severability provision, the court stated the objectionable language could not be severed and determined the arbitration clauses were unenforceable in their entirety.However, we have rejected the proposition that an “arbitration agreement that contains an unenforceable remedial restriction is completely null and void unless it also contains a severability clause.” Terminix Int’l Co., LP v. Palmer Ranch Ltd. P’ship, 432 F.3d 1327, 1331 (11th Cir. 2005). Instead, if a provision is “not enforceable, then the court must determine whether the unenforceable provisions are severable. Severability is decided as a matter of state law.” Id.Our law does not support that an arbitration provision is unenforceable in its entirety if it contains an offending clause and lacks a severability provision. Id. The district court did not go on to the next step to address whether the unenforceable clauses were severable as a matter of Florida law, despite PIP arguing this issue in its objections to the R&R. Thus, we remand to the district court to decide in the first instance the issue of whether the offending clauses are severable under Florida law.

Thus, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s conclusion the fees and costs clauses of the arbitration provisions were unenforceable, but reversed the district court’s conclusion the arbitration provisions are unenforceable in their entirety solely because they lack a severability provision, and remanded for the district court to determine whether the fees and costs clauses are severable as a matter of Florida law.

Click Hudson v. P.I.P., Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

9th Cir.: Nevada Waived Sovereign Immunity from FLSA Claims by Removing Lawsuit to Federal Court

Walden v. State of Nevada

This case was before the court on the State of Nevada’s interlocutory appeal, following the district court’s denial of its motion to dismiss on jursidictional grounds.  Addressing an issue of first impression, the Ninth Circuit held that removal from state court to federal court constitutes a waiver of sovereign immunity as to all federal claims, including the FLSA claims at issue here.

In Walden, state correctional officers alleged that the Nevada Department of Corrections improperly failed to pay them for pre- and post-shift work at state prisons and other facilities. They filed suit in state court, alleging minimum wage and overtime claims under the FLSA, in addition to a minimum-wage claim under Nevada’s Constitution, a overtime claim under Nevada law, and a claim for breach of contract.

Nevada removed the case to federal court and moved for judgment on the pleadings with regard to the FLSA claims, and contended that it was “immune from liability as a matter of law.” Nevada did not explicitly mention state sovereign immunity or the Eleventh Amendment, though.

The district court requested briefing on the question whether state sovereign immunity applies to the FLSA claims against the state following its removal of the case to federal court.

The district court held that Nevada had waived its sovereign immunity as to the officers’ FLSA claim by virtue of its removal of the case to federal court, and denied the state’s motion to dismiss.  Nevada filed an interlocutory appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

While the particular issue at bar was one of first impression, the Ninth Circuit looked to other cases in which states had been held to waive soverign immunity when they removed federal claims to federal court, to reach its holding.

The Ninth Circuit noted that the Supreme Court had previously held that a state can waive sovereign immunity with regard to state law claims by removing them to federal court and the Ninth Circuit itself had previously held that, at least in some circumstances a state can waive soverign immunity by removing federal statutory claims to federal court.

The court then went one step further: “We now hold that a State that removes a case to federal court waives its immunity from suit on all federal-law claims in the case, including those federal-law claims that Congress failed to apply to the states through unequivocal and valid abrogation of their Eleventh Amendment immunity,” it wrote.

As the Supreme Court had observed, it was inconsistent for a state simultaneously to invoke federal jurisdiction, thus acknowledging the federal court’s authority over the case at hand, while claiming it enjoyed sovereign immunity from the “Judicial Power of the United States” in the matter before it.

Thus, the Ninth Circuit held that a state waives soverign immunity as to all federal statutory claims in a case which the state has removed to federal court, including those federal claims that Congress did not apply to the states through unequivocal and valid abrogation of their Eleventh Amendment immunity (like the FLSA).

Click Walden v. State of Nevada to read the entire decision.

Trump DOL Announces Proposed Rule for Tip Credit Provisions To Permit Restaurants to Indirectly Retain Portion of Employees’ Tips Under Certain Circumstances and Pay Reduced Minimum Wage for Virtually All Hours Worked

Although it has long been the law that the owners and managers of restaurants, bars and other businesses employing tipped employees may not keep or share in any portion of tipped employees tips, the Trump DOL has proposed new rules to change that under certain circumstances.  Under the new rules, neither the owners or the management of restaurants may share in tips directly.  However, if the rules go into effect, the owners of restaurants could share in the tips indirectly by diverting tips from the employees who earned them to employees who do not normally earn tips (i.e. back of house staff like cooks, dishwashers, etc.), as long as the tipped employees are paid a direct wage of at least the regular minimum wage in addition to tips.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced a proposed rule for tip provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) implementing provisions of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 (CAA).

In its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the DOL proposes to:

  • Explicitly prohibit employers, managers, and supervisors from keeping tips received by employees;
  • Remove regulatory language imposing restrictions on an employer’s use of tips when the employer does not take a tip credit. This would allow employers that do not take an FLSA tip credit to include a broader group of workers, such as cooks or dishwashers, in a mandatory tip pool.
  • Incorporate in the regulations, as provided under the CAA, new civil money penalties, currently not to exceed $1,100, that may be imposed when employers unlawfully keep tips.
  • Amend the regulations to reflect recent guidance explaining that an employer may take a tip credit for any amount of time that an employee in a tipped occupation performs related non-tipped duties contemporaneously with his or her tipped duties, or for a reasonable time immediately before or after performing the tipped duties.
  • Withdraw the Department’s NPRM, published on December 5, 2017, that proposed changes to tip regulations as that NPRM was superseded by the CAA.

While an email from the DOL contends that “[t]he proposal would also codify existing Wage and Hour Division (WHD) guidance into a rule.” In fact, it would change long-standing WHD guidance to legalize certain practices currently deemed wage theft by the DOL.

New Rule Would Allow Restaurants to Require Tipped Employees to Subsidize Pay of Non-Tipped Employees

The CAA prohibits employers from keeping employees’ tips.  DOL’s proposed rule would allow employers who do not take a tip credit (i.e. those who pay tipped employees direct wages at least equal to the regular minimum wage) to establish a tip pool to be shared between workers who receive tips and are paid the full minimum wage and employees that do not traditionally receive tips, such as dishwashers and cooks.

The proposed rule would not impact regulations providing that employers who take a tip credit may only have a tip pool among traditionally tipped employees. An employer may take a tip credit toward its minimum wage obligation for tipped employees equal to the difference between the required cash wage (currently $2.13 per hour) and the federal minimum wage. Establishments utilizing a tip credit may only have a tip pool among traditionally tipped employees.

New Rule Would Allow Restaurants to Pay Reduced Minimum Wage More Hours Performing Non-Tipped Duties Where Employees Are Unable to Earn Tips

Additionally, the proposed rule reflects the Department’s guidance that an employer may take a tip credit for any amount of time an employee in a tipped occupation performs related non-tipped duties with tipped duties. For the employer to use the tip credit, the employee must perform non-tipped duties contemporaneous with, or within a reasonable time immediately before or after, performing the tipped duties. The proposed regulation also addresses which non-tipped duties are related to a tip-producing occupation.

If adopted, this rule would do away with longstanding guidance from the DOL which requires employers to pay the regular minimum wage for hours of work spent performing non-tipped duties, to the extent such duties comprise more than 20% of an employee’s time worked during a workweek.

Proposed Rule Will Be Available for Review and Public Comment

After publication this NPRM will be available for review and public comment for 60 days. The Department encourages interested parties to submit comments on the proposed rule. The NPRM, along with the procedures for submitting comments, can be found at the WHD’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) website.

The proposed rules along with the recent selection of a notorious anti-worker/pro-business advocate Eugene Scalia to Secretary of Labor signal that the Trump administration’s effort to erode workers’ rights is likely to continue if not accelerate for the remainder of his presidency.

10th Cir.: Workers for Recreational Marijuana Covered by FLSA, Notwithstanding Federal Law Which Renders Business Illegal

Kenney v. Helix TCS, Inc.

Following denial of the defendant-employer Helix’s motion to dismiss, Helix appealed.  Helix–a company that provides security services in the state sanctioned recreational marijuana business–appealed contending that the FLSA did not apply to it.  Specifically, Helix asserted that the FLSA does not apply to workers such as plaintiff, because Colorado’s recreational marijuana industry is in violation of federal law, the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Rejecting this argument just as the court below had, the Tenth Circuit held that just because an employer – such as one in Colorado’s recreational marijuana industry – may be in violation of federal law, here the CSA, that does not mean its employees are not entitled to overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Helix TCS, Inc., provides security services for businesses in Colorado’s state-sanctioned marijuana industry. One of its employees, Robert Kenney, alleged that he and other security guards regularly worked more than 40 hours per week without overtime pay.

Helix did not dispute the fact that Kenney worked more than 40 hours without overtime, nor did it try to argue that he was covered by one of the FLSA’s many overtime exemptions. Instead, it argued that the FLSA was in conflict with CSA’s purpose.  The Tenth Circuit rejected this argument and held that employers are not excused from complying with federal laws because of their other federal violations.

The 10th Circuit compared the situation to the 1931 trial of Al Capone in which jurors convicted the gangster for failing to pay taxes on his ill-gotten income. Just as there was no reason then why the fact a business was unlawful should exempt it from paying the taxes it would otherwise have had to pay, the Tenth Circuit said there is no reason today why a recreational marijuana company should be exempt from paying overtime just because it may be in violation of the CSA.

Click Kenney v. Helix TCS, Inc. to read the entire decision.

Budget Bill Limits Circumstances Under Which Employers Can Use Tip Pools; Clarifies Damages Due If Employers Improperly Retain Employees Tips

After contentious negotiations and threatened government shutdowns, on March 23, the President signed the 2018 Budget Bill into law.  Of significance here, the bill resolved several longstanding regulatory issues.

The spending bill, includes an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which now prohibits employers—including managers and supervisors—from participating in tip-pooling arrangements, even where the employer does not seek to take the so-called tip credit and pays the employees the regular minimum wage rather than the tip-credit minimum wage, sometimes referred to as the “server’s wage” in the restaurant industry.  In other words, under the new law employers, managers and supervisors can never share in a tip pool and employees can never be required to pay any portion of their tips to employers, managers or supervisors.

The amendment also clarifies two (2) issues which have divided courts regarding the disgorgement of illegally retained tips.  While many courts have long-held that an employer who illegally requires employees to share tip with non-tipped employees (managers, supervisors, back-of-house and/or kitchen staff, etc.) must return all such tips to the employees, not all courts uniformly held as such.  The amendment clarifies that damages resulting from illegal tip pooling include a return of all tips to the employees.  The amendment also clarifies that employees’ damages include liquidated damages on all damages, including the disgorged tips, an issue which had previously divided courts and for which the Department of Labor had not provided guidance previously.

In light of the fervent anti-employee stance that the Department of Labor has taken under the current administration, this certainly must be celebrated as a victory for workers.  Indeed, the law replaces a proposed regulation which garnered much opposition for its pro-wage theft stance and which was recently discovered to have been pushed through the regulatory process based on intentionally incomplete information provided by Secretary of Labor.

Click amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act to read the full text of the new law.

M.D.Fla.: Plaintiffs Entitled to Irrebuttable Presumption That Their Damage Calculations Are Correct Where Defendant Spoliated Payroll Records

Sec’y of Labor v. Caring First, Inc.

This case was before the court on the plaintiffs’ motion for sanctions.  Specifically, plaintiffs sought sanctions as a result of the defendant-employers intentional destruction of the relevant payroll records pertaining to plaintiffs’ employment.  While the court denied plaintiffs’ motion to the extent that it sought a default judgment, the court ordered that—to the extent plaintiffs prevailed on liability at trial—their calculation based on payroll records available from a third-party would be deemed irrebuttably correct, subject to the court’s approval.

The court provided the following history of the defendants’ egregious discovery misconduct:

This case arises under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA“), as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants mischaracterized their licensed practical nurse and registered nurse employees as independent contractors. (Compl., Doc. 1, at 3). On December 3, 2015, this Court entered a scheduling order directing the parties to exchange all documents germane to this case by January 15, 2016. (FLSA Scheduling Order, Doc. 29, ¶ 1). Defendants failed to timely comply with the disclosure of documents and, as a result, an Order to Show Cause why sanctions should not be imposed was issued. (Feb. 25, 2016 Order, Doc. 32, at 1-2). After a hearing on the matter, this Court found that sanctions were warranted against Defendants and Defendants’ counsel for their failure to comply with the Court’s order, but held the sanctions in abeyance so long as Defendants produced all relevant documents in their possession, custody, or control by March 21, 2016. (Mar. 7, 2016 Order, Doc. 37, ¶¶ 1-3).

On March 11, 2016, Plaintiff filed a motion for sanctions against Defendants. (Mot. for Sanctions, Doc. 38). Therein, Plaintiff alleged that Defendants willfully destroyed, or negligently allowed to be destroyed, payroll records prior to May 2015, despite an ongoing investigation by the Department of Labor (“Department”). (Id. at 12-13). Additionally, Plaintiff asserted that since May 2015, an administrative employee had been deleting payroll records on a weekly basis by writing [*3]  over them at the end of each work week. (Id. at 15-16). Defendants acknowledged that an employee was writing over the payroll week-to-week but claimed that the records prior to May 2015 were destroyed by a disgruntled former employee, Karen Reyes. (Id. at 7). On September 22, 2016, this Court entered an order denying the motion for sanctions because there was a factual dispute regarding whether Reyes deleted the payroll records and because Plaintiff had not yet determined what, if any, prejudice Plaintiff had suffered. (Sept. 22, 2016 Order, Doc. 55, at 6-7, 9). Nevertheless, the Court was troubled by Defendants’ actions and ordered Defendants to “immediately halt the destruction of any Current Payroll Records” and produce all payroll records to Plaintiff on a bi-weekly basis. (Id. at 10). Now, Plaintiff again seeks sanctions against Defendants and Defendants’ counsel pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(b), 28 U.S.C. § 1927, and this Court’s inherent authority.

Following a discussion of the relevant standards for sanctions under Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 37, the court determined that the appropriate “punishment to fit the crime” in this case was to order that plaintiffs’ damages calculations would be subject to an irrebuttable presumption of correctness.  Specifically, the court explained that plaintiffs could not show the extreme prejudice to warrant a default judgment, because they were apparently ultimately able to obtain the payroll records at issue from defendants third-party payroll company, notwithstanding defendants’ destruction of the copies in defendants’ possession.

Thus, the court held:

Plaintiff represented at the evidentiary hearing that he was able to obtain a sampling of nurses’ paychecks from Caring First’s bank. From these paychecks, which contain the hours worked by the nurses and their pay rate, Plaintiff claims he will be able to accurately calculate back wages. Therefore, as a sanction the Court will order the production of the nurses’ paychecks from Caring First’s bank. In addition, the Court will allow Plaintiff to recalculate potential back wages based on these paychecks. If Plaintiff prevails as to liability at trial, this calculation will be irrebuttably presumed to be correct, subject to Court approval.

This is definitely a case for all wage and hour practitioners to hold on to, because the circumstances of this case are unfortunately far from unique.

Click Sec’y of Labor v. Caring First, Inc. to read the entire Opinion of the court.

3d Cir.: Employer Must Pay for All Breaks Shorter Than 20 Minutes Notwithstanding “Flex Time” Policy

Secretary United States Department of Labor v. American Future Systems, Inc.

This case was before the Third Circuit on appeal by the employer.  The district court granted the DOL’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the employer’s policy of excluding time for breaks less than 20 minutes long violated the FLSA.  The Third Circuit agreed and affirmed, holding that the Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to compensate employees for breaks of 20 minutes or less during which they are free of any work related duties.

The court summarized the relevant facts as follows:

American Future Systems, d/b/a Progressive Business Publications, publishes and distributes business publications and sells them through its sales representatives. Edward Satell is the President, CEO, and owner of the company. Sales representatives are paid an hourly wage and receive bonuses based on the number of sales per hour while they are logged onto the computer at their workstation. They also receive extra compensation if they maintain a certain sales-per-hour level over a given two-week period.

Progressive previously had a policy that gave employees two fifteen-minute paid breaks per day. In 2009, Progressive changed its policy by eliminating paid breaks but allowing employees to log off of their computers at any time. However, employees are only paid for time they are logged on. Progressive refers to this as “flexible time” or “flex time” and explains that it “arises out of an employer’s policy that maximizes its employees’ ability to take breaks from work at any time, for any reason, and for any duration.”

Furthermore, under this policy, every two weeks, sales representatives estimate the total number of hours that they expect to work during the upcoming two-week pay period. They are subject to discipline, including termination, for failing to work the number of hours they commit to. Progressive also sends representatives home for the day if their sales are not high enough and sets fixed work schedules or daily requirements for representatives when that is deemed necessary.

Apart from those requirements, representatives can decide when they will work between the hours of 8:30 AM and 5:00 PM from Monday to Friday, so long as they do not work more than forty hours each week. As noted above, during the work day, they can log off of their computers at any time, for any reason, and for any length of time and may leave the office when they are logged off. Employees choose their start and end time and can take as many breaks as they please. However, Progressive only pays sales representatives for time they are logged off of their computers if they are logged off for less than ninety seconds. This includes time they are logged off to use the bathroom or get coffee. The policy also applies to any break an employee may decide to take after a particularly difficult sales call to get ready for the next call. On average, representatives are each paid for just over five hours per day at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

On appeal, the defendant-employer raised three arguments: (1) that time spent logged off under its flexible break policy categorically does not constitute work; (2) that the District Court erred in finding that WHD’s interpretive regulation on breaks less than twenty minutes long, 29 C.F.R § 785.18, is entitled to substantial deference; and (3) that the District Court erred in adopting the bright-line rule embodied in 29 C.F.R. § 785.18 rather than using a fact-specific analysis. The Third Circuit rejected each of these arguments.

The court rejected the defendant’s that their defendant’s “flex time” policy was not a break policy within the meaning of the FLSA, reasoning that labeling its policy as “flex time” was simply a means to attempt to illegally circumvent the requirements of the FLSA.

The court next held that the DOL’s break time regulation, codified in 29 C.F.R. § 785.18 is entitled to Skidmore deference, the highest level of deference given to an administrative regulation.  The court reasoned that the regulation was due Skidmore deference because: (1) the former FLSA specifically empowered the DOL to promulgate such regulations; (2) the DOL’s interpretation of the break time regulations has been consistent throughout the various opinion letters the DOL has issued to address this issue; and (3) the DOL’s interpretation is reasonable given the language and purpose of the FLSA.

Having determined that the regulation is entitled to deference, the court held that the regulation must be read to create a bright line rule and concluded that it does.  The court explained that “the restrictions endemic in the limited duration of twenty minutes or less illustrate the wisdom of concluding that the Secretary intended a bright line rule under the applicable regulations.”  As such, the court affirmed the decision below and held that defendant’s break policy which excluded time for breaks less than 20 minutes long violated the FLSA.

Click Secretary United States Department of Labor v. American Future Systems, Inc. to read the entire Opinion of the Court.

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.