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4th Cir.: Strippers Are Employees NOT Independent Contractors; Trial Court Properly Applied the Economic Reality Test
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.
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.
N.D.Ga.: Exotic Dancers Are Employees Not Independent Contractors; Entitled to Minimum Wages and Overtime
Clincy v. Galardi South Enterprises, Inc.
This case was before the court on numerous motions. As discussed here, the judge granted plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment and denied defendants’ cross motion, holding that plaintiffs’- exotic dancers or strippers- were defendants’ employees, not independent contractors. As such, plaintiffs were entitled to minimum wages and overtime pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Significantly, none of the plaintiffs were paid any direct wages by the club in which they worked. Instead, they paid defendants for the right to perform in their club. The plaintiffs’ each were required to sign independent contractor agreements as a prerequisite to beginning work for the defendants. Further, the defendants claimed that the dancers were independent contractors because they were paid directly by customers and did not receive paychecks. They also claimed that the club did not profit from the dancers and that the dancers did not necessarily drive the club’s business. However, based on evidence that the defendants set the prices for tableside dances and how much of their gross receipts dancers were required to turn over in the form of “house fees” and disc jockey fees, as well as the fact that the defendants set specific schedules for the dancers, created rules of conduct (subject to discipline), check-in and check-out procedures and otherwise controlled the method and manner in which plaintiffs worked, the court held that the defendants were plaintiffs’ employers under the FLSA.
Although not a groundbreaking decision, it is significant because the majority of strip clubs around the country continue to disregard court decisions that have held that most strippers, employed under circumstances similar to those in the case, are actually employees.
Click Clincy v. Galardi South Enterprises, Inc. to read the entire Order.
As reported in yesterday’s Boston Globe:
“When Noel Van Wagner began working as a stripper in New England clubs about 15 years ago, she typically got a modest wage or no salary at all. But she said she made so much in tips – $300 to $800 per shift – that she didn’t care and didn’t even mind paying club owners $10 or $20 for the right to perform each night.
Like other forms of entertainment, however, strip clubs have lost customers because of the bad economy, and Van Wagner said the place where she works, Ten’s Show Club in Salisbury, has responded by wringing as much money as it can out of each dancer. The club, she says, pays no salary, charges each stripper $40 to $60 per shift to perform, and imposes other fees for lateness or failing to participate in every dance routine – all at a time when tips have plunged.
Yesterday, she and another dancer at the club, along with one who left in March, sued the business in Essex Superior Court for allegedly misclassifying them as “independent contractors,” depriving them of wages and tips. The strippers were emboldened by a recent state court ruling that about 70 strippers who worked at King Arthur’s Lounge in Chelsea were entitled to recover thousands of dollars in damages in a class-action lawsuit that made similar allegations. That complaint was believed to be the first of its kind in Massachusetts.”
To read the entire article go to the Boston Globe’s website.
Although it is a widespread practice nationwide, for adult entertainment nightclubs to treat their performers as independent contractors vs employees, most courts to have considered the issue have found such performers to be employees. Nonetheless the rampant misclassification of strippers and other adult entertainers continues all over the country.
N.D.Ga.: FLSA Plaintiffs’ Motion For Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) and Preliminary Injunction Granted; Plaintiffs Reinstated To Jobs And Statute Of Limitations Tolled Due To Retaliatory Discharge
Clincy v. Galardi South Enterprises, Inc.
This matter comes was before the Court on Plaintiffs’ Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction. Plaintiffs were employed as entertainers at Club Onyx (“Onyx”), an adult entertainment night club allegedly owned and operated by Defendants.
On July 31, 2009, Plaintiffs filed a putative collective action against their employer for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). The alleged violations of the FLSA include misclassifying the Plaintiffs as independent contractors instead of employees, failing to pay minimum wage and overtime, and retaliation for filing suit under the statute. On August 11, 2009, some Plaintiffs appear to have been terminated, from their employment with Onyx as a result of filing this action. Plaintiffs Jordan, on August 12, and Clincy, on August 13, were also informed that they could no longer work at Onyx due to their involvement in this suit. On August 20, 2009, Plaintiffs filed a Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction . Among the relief sought in the motion, Plaintiffs requested that they be reinstated to their positions at Onyx and that they and other similarly situated individuals not be adversely affected by participation in this suit. Plaintiffs also requested the tolling of the statute of limitations for the FLSA claims of similarly situated individuals.
The Court first defined the applicable legal standard. “It is settled law in this Circuit that a preliminary injunction is an “extraordinary and drastic remedy[.]” Zardui-Quintana v. Richard, 768 F.2d 1213, 1216 (11th Cir.1985). To obtain such relief, a movant must demonstrate: (1) a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of the underlying case, (2) the movant will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction, (3) the harm suffered by the movant in the absence of an injunction would exceed the harm suffered by the opposing party if the injunction issued, and (4) an injunction would not disserve the public interest. Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, Inc. v. 1-800 Contacts, Inc., 299 F.3d 1242, 1246-47 (11th Cir.2002). Based on the arguments made at the hearing, a review of the record, and the parties’ briefs, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs have succeeded in making such a showing here, and a preliminary injunction will accordingly be issued.”
Finding that Plaintiffs met their burden, the Court stated, “Plaintiffs have demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of the underlying case. While the FLSA establishes requirements for minimum wage and overtime pay, it also makes it illegal to “discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to” the FLSA. 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3). While the Plaintiffs may well succeed on the claim that they are employees of Onyx and not independent contractors and thus entitled to a minimum wage and overtime pay, they are substantially likely to prevail on the claim of retaliation. All of the Plaintiffs, with the exception of Hammond, were fired after instituting this suit. At the August 11 meeting at which Parker, Pough, Wells, Leaphart, Sales, and Appling were ostensibly terminated, it was made clear that the reason for their termination was the filing of this suit. Plaintiffs Jordan and Clincy were similarly told that they would not be able to work at Onyx as a result of their participation in the FLSA action. (See Complaint, at 17). This type of action represents a flagrant violation of the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision and therefore Plaintiffs have satisfied the first requirement by demonstrating a substantial likelihood of success.
Plaintiffs have also satisfied the second requirement by demonstrating that irreparable harm will be suffered absent the injunction. In Gresham v. Windrush Partners, LTD, the Court found that “irreparable injury may be presumed from the fact of discrimination and violation of fair housing statutes.” 730 F.2d 1417, 1423 (11th Cir.1984). The Court went on to state that, “when a plaintiff who has standing to bring suit shows a substantial likelihood that a defendant has violated specific fair housing statutes and regulations, that alone, if unrebutted, is sufficient to support an injunction remedying these violations.” Id. In the case at hand, Plaintiffs have demonstrated that a substantial likelihood exists that Defendants have violated the FLSA, specifically its anti-retaliation provision. The FLSA provides that actions may be brought by any employee on behalf of himself and others similarly situated and specifically contemplates “equitable relief as may be appropriate to effectuate the purposes of section 215(a)(3) of this title, including without limitation … reinstatement.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).
The anti-retaliation provision of the FLSA is intended to allow employees to seek vindication of their statutory rights without the fear of reprisal. Retaliatory termination also carries with it the risk that other similarly situated employees will be deterred from protecting their own rights. See Holt v. Continental Group, Inc., 708 F.2d 87, 91 (2d Cir.1983) (stating retaliatory discharge carries risk of deterring employees from protecting statutory rights). Furthermore, in order to be a party to an FLSA action, an employee must actively join the suit by providing consent in writing. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Irreparable injury may not occur every time a retaliatory discharge takes place, but under the present facts it appears likely that other similarly situated employees of Onyx will be deterred from joining the action as a result of the action taken against Plaintiffs by Onyx. Defendants not only fired Plaintiffs for their participation in this suit, but also informed other entertainers at Onyx that Plaintiffs had been fired because of their participation. (See Memorandum of Law in Support of Plaintiffs’ Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction, at 9 [14-2] ). Forcing individuals with claims under the FLSA to choose between pursuing their claims or maintaining employment results in irreparable harm. See Allen v. Suntrust Banks, Inc., 549 F.Supp.2d 1379 (N.D.Ga.2008) (finding irreparable harm where employees were put in a position of either obtaining a severance package or pursuing their FLSA claims).”
Thus, the Court found that “the harm to Plaintiffs in the absence of an injunction will exceed any harm suffered by Defendants as a result of granting a preliminary injunction. The Court also finds that an injunction in this case will not disserve the public interest. Such equitable relief is specifically contemplated by the FLSA in order to protect the rights of employees. Plaintiffs have therefore satisfied the requirements necessary for the granting of a preliminary injunction. Because Plaintiffs seek the tolling of the statute of limitations as part of the preliminary injunction, this Court will also examine the propriety of this request.”
Granting Plaintiffs’ request to equitably toll the statute of limitations, the Court said, ‘Time requirements in lawsuits between private litigants are customarily subject to ‘equitable tolling.’ ‘ Irwin v. Dep’t of Veterans Affairs, 498 U.S. 89, 95, 111 S.Ct. 453, 112 L.Ed.2d 435 (1990). However, it is a remedy which should be used sparingly. Justice v. United States, 6 F.3d 1474, 1479 (11th Cir.1993). Equitable tolling is permitted ‘upon finding an inequitable event that prevented plaintiff’s timely action.’ Id. It is permitted where the plaintiff ‘has been induced … by his adversary’s misconduct into allowing the filing deadline to pass.’ Irwin, 498 U.S. at 96.
In the underlying case, individuals similarly situated to Plaintiffs have likely been induced to refrain from pursuing claims under the FLSA as a result of the discharge of Plaintiffs and by being informed by management of Onyx that the discharge resulted from participation in this suit. Therefore, proper grounds exist to toll the statute of limitations for a limited period until similarly situated individuals may be made aware that they may pursue FLSA claims without the fear of retaliation or reprisal.
For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiffs Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction  is hereby GRANTED and the following relief is ORDERED:
1. Defendants are to immediately reinstate Plaintiffs Parker, Pough, Wells, Leaphart, Sales, Jordan, Clincy, and Appling;
2. Defendants are prohibited from retaliating or discriminating in any way against Plaintiffs or similarly situated individuals for involvement with or participation in this action or any other pursuit of claims under the FLSA; and
3. the statute of limitations for potential opt-in plaintiffs is tolled until this Court has ruled on Plaintiffs’ Motion for Conditional Class Certification .”