By Brad Cave
By invalidating a U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) regulation that states that tips are the property of employees, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals (whose opinions apply to Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Kansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico) rejected an employee’s wage claim based on her employer’s practice of keeping all tips. But employers in states with an analogous state law governing ownership of tips, such as Wyoming, need to be aware that the 10th Circuit’s ruling may not change how they handle tips.
Caterer Kept Tips But Paid More Than Minimum Wage
Relish Catering regularly receives tips from its customers in the form of a gratuity added to their final catering bill at the end of an event. Relish retains those tips for itself rather than passing them along to its employees who work at the events. However, it pays its employees at or above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour as well as time and a half for overtime and does not rely on any sort of tip credit to meet the minimum wage.
Bridgette Marlow believed Relish was required to turn over her share of the catering tips under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Despite making $12 per hour (and $18 per hour for overtime), she sued Relish and Brett Tucker, a manager and part owner of the company, alleging they violated the minimum wage provisions of the FLSA by retaining the tips.
FLSA Restrictions Apply Only When Tip Credit Taken
Marlow argued that by retaining all of the tips, Relish was essentially paying employees below minimum wage. For example, she suggested that if she received her $12 hourly wage but Relish retained $11 in tips for each hour she worked, the result was the same as if Relish turned over all of the tips to her and paid her a $1 hourly wage. In essence, she argued that the company could be paying less than the required amount for tipped employees.
The 10th Circuit didn’t bite on Marlow’s rationale. The Court stated that it doesn’t matter where the money to pay wages comes from so long as the company paid at least the minimum wage required under the FLSA. The Court rejected Marlow’s argument that the FLSA’s tip-credit provision applied to her case because Relish doesn’t take a tip credit.
The FLSA tip-credit provision allows employers of “tipped employees” to pay a reduced hourly wage of $2.13 per hour so long as employees receive sufficient tips to raise their earnings to the $7.25 hourly minimum. But this provision applies only if the employer counts tips toward the minimum wage, said the Court. The tip-credit provision does not apply if the employer doesn’t count tips toward the minimum and instead pays the full hourly minimum wage.
The Court stated that the FLSA tip-credit provision does not require that employers turn over all tips to employee in all circumstances, as Marlow urged. Instead, when an employer doesn’t take the tip credit, the tip-credit provision imposes no restrictions on what it may do with tips as long as it pays an hourly wage above the $7.25.
DOL’s Tip-Ownership Regulation Invalid
Marlow relied extensively on a 2011 DOL regulation that provides:
Tips are the property of the employee whether or not the employer has
taken a tip credit under section 3(m) of the FLSA. The employer is
prohibited from using an employee’s tips, whether or not it has taken a tip
credit, for any reason other than that which is statutorily permitted in
section 3(m): As a credit against its minimum wage obligations to the
employee, or in furtherance of a valid tip pool.
From the language of that regulation, it would seem that Marlow had a valid claim. But the 10th Circuit said not so fast and looked at whether the DOL had the authority to implement the regulation in the first place.
Relying on U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the 10th Circuit pointed out that federal agencies may create rules only to fill “ambiguities” or “gaps” in statutes. In a “friend-of-the-court” brief, the federal government argued that the FLSA is silent on the issue of who “owns” tips when an employer does not take the tip credit, and therefore, the DOL had the authority to create a tip ownership rule to fill in that gap.
Despite the Ninth Circuit’s acceptance of that argument, the 10th Circuit disagreed with it, finding that nothing in the FLSA directs the DOL to regulate the ownership of tips when the employer doesn’t take the tip credit. Because the FLSA limits the tip restrictions to employers who take the tip credit, the DOL lacked the authority to regulate otherwise.
The Court invalidated the DOL’s tip-ownership regulation, finding it was beyond the DOL’s authority, and affirmed the lower court’s judgment in favor of the employer. Marlow v. The New Food Guy, Inc., No. 16-1134 (10th Cir. June 30, 2017). Read more