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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.
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.
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.