United States: Another Federal Court Thinks The DOL Is Out To Lunch On Tip Credit Rule

Seyfarth Synopsis: New decision from Northern District of Georgia rejects the DOL's interpretation of the FLSA tip credit law. Holds that the FLSA does not regulate tips received by employees who are paid at least minimum wage.

Imagine that you are a restaurateur. You employ servers and bartenders who receive tips, but you pay them at least the minimum wage instead of the lower, minimum cash wage of $2.13 per hour. You are not taking a "tip credit" based on the tips your servers receive to bring them up to minimum wage. Instead, you're directly paying the servers minimum wage (or more). If you reallocate the tips your servers receive, are you violating the FLSA?

Section 3(m) of the FLSA states that employees must retain all tips they receive if the employer takes a tip credit towards their minimum wage obligation. Prior to April 2011, courts held that Section 3(m) does not require employers to return tip money to employees if the employer does not take a tip credit. You, as the restaurateur, do not have to return tips your servers receive under the FLSA because you pay your them at least  minimum wage and the FLSA does not regulate your tip pool.

That was the case before the Department of Labor tried to regulate what the FLSA does not: tips received by employees who are paid at or above minimum wage. In April 2011, the DOL issued a rule that states, "Tips are the property of the employee whether or not the employer has taken the tip credit under Section 3(m) of the FLSA." 29 C.F.R § 531.52. This DOL rule has been rejected by many district courts and the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, who agreed that the rule is not entitled to deference under Chevron or otherwise because the FLSA does not regulate tips of employees who are paid at least minimum wage. As we reported in February, however, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit went against the grain and upheld the rule in Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association v. Perez. The Ninth Circuit concluded that because Section 3(m) is silent on whether employees who do not take a tip credit can reallocate tips received by employees, the DOL retained authority to regulate all tips, and the rule is reasonable and entitled to deference.

Recently, in Malivuk v. Ameripark, LLC, the plaintiff asked the Northern District of Georgia to adopt the Ninth Circuit's approval of the DOL rule for valet attendants who received tips that were then reallocated by Ameripark to pay for overhead expenses. Ameripark argued that the DOL regulation is invalid under Chevron. The Northern District of Georgia agreed with Ameripark—and did not mince words in doing so. The court labeled the Ninth Circuit's reasoning in Oregon Restaurant as "flawed" and stated, "The DOL Regulation violates the plain language of Section 203(m)."

Malivuk reaffirms that the DOL cannot exceed what the FLSA regulates. The FLSA regulates minimum wage and overtime pay, not wage payment like the laws of many states. If the DOL rule regulating tips received for employees who are paid at least minimum wage were to stay, it would fundamentally transform the FLSA into a wage payment law. The FLSA is not "silent" on how tips received by employees who are properly paid the minimum wage and overtime should be paid out; rather, the FLSA does not regulate these employees because it has no other remedies to offer them. The FLSA's remedies are for payments below minimum wage and failure to pay overtime; it is not a wage payment law.

As the hospitality and other industries search for ways to share the tips collected by front-of-the-house employees like servers and bartenders with back-of-the-house employees like cooks, dishwashers, and janitors, the DOL's far-reaching tip pool rule is an encroachment. Rulings like Malivuk allow employers to allocate tips in ways that suit their business needs.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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