I happily note that a positive trend, in my view, is continuing.  That is to say, the defeating of FLSA collective actions by defendants asserting that there is not enough similarity in the putative plaintiffs to warrant their conditional certification into a class.  A federal judge has just rejected a motion for conditional certification, in which 65,000 employees, nationwide, tried to sue Steak N Shake, for overtime.  The case is entitled Beecher v. Steak N Shake Operations Incorporated and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of Georgia.

This was another of these off-the-clock cases, where hourly employees charge that they were not paid for all time worked.  The suit also charged that managers altered time records in order to “save” the overtime that would have otherwise been due.  Parenthetically, I should note that in these chain-store cases, so-called Burger King cases, the individual stores run on tight labor budgets and managers are judged by whether they adhere to these budgets, so there is intense pressure to stay within budget, sometimes resulting in off-the-clock work being done, or allegedly being done.

With that said, the Court concluded that that the plaintiffs had not shown that they were similarly situated to each other or that there was not a commonality, a system wide policy or company practice that could be the “glue” to hold the action together.  This was particularly applicable to the contention that a nationwide practice to falsify and alter records existed.

The court concluded that “even assuming, arguendo, that there exists a nationwide practice of reviewing and sometimes revising hours clocked in and out, and tips received, that is not enough glue to hold this proposed class together; neither is the fact that defendant generally discourages managers from allowing overtime work.”

Thus, the court found that the plaintiffs’ allegations required individual scrutiny because to adjudge the claims would mean to be to call numerous supervisors to testify to their particular practices on these matters.  Merely showing that the putative class members all utilized the same reporting system (and that all of the stores used the same internal reporting system) would not answer the key question of whether the employees were similarly situated or treated.  Thus, given the size of the class and the individualized nature of the allegations, there would have to be several thousand mini-trials, which would make the case unmanageable.  Thus, dismissal was warranted.

What I take away from this is that when faced with a nationwide class action, with thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of possible plaintiffs, the opportunity to argue no commonality/need for individual scrutiny may be actually enhanced.  Instead of being the terrifying specter that such a suit initially raises, it could actually be the salvation of the defendant-employer.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) announced that United States Beef Corp., doing business as Arby’s, has agreed to pay back wages in the amount of $55,838 based on their failure to properly calculate overtime.  This agreement came following an investigation by the DOL, which found that 255 Arby’s restaurants had failed to include bonuses paid to managers when computing the “regular rate” of pay for overtime compensation. The settlement affects 759 current and former hourly paid managers in Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma.

Pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), overtime for hourly workers “must be compensated at a rate not less than one and one half times the regular rate at which the employee is actually employed.”  The “regular rate” is computed by dividing the total compensation paid to an employee (including all commissions, bonuses and incentive pay) by the hours worked in a given week.  Contrary to an hourly rate, the “regular rate” of pay will vary from week to week depending on the number of hours worked and the monetary amount of any bonus or commission paid to the employee.

The DOL found that Arby’s had computed overtime for the hourly managers using their hourly rate of pay rather than their “regular rate.”  The DOL stated in a press release that “Fast food restaurants are frequently found by the Wage and Hour Division to be in violation of the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime wage provisions.  Because historical data indicate that the majority of violations are committed by franchisees rather than by corporate-owned establishments, the division is focusing its enforcement efforts accordingly.”

All employers, not just fast food franchisees, need to make sure that they are calculating overtime correctly.  This is especially true for businesses that pay employees lump sum amounts, such as bonuses, pursuant to company policy or practice.  As seen above, even a relatively small deviation from the required computation can lead to significant liability.

On May 9, 2011, a group of Yankee Stadium food service workers filed a complaint in the Southern District of New York alleging that the stadium’s concession providers withheld tips in violation of the New York Labor Law (“NY Labor Law”). The workers allege that the concession providers at the new and old Yankee stadiums kept the 20% service charge added to the cost of food and drinks served to certain field level fans. The workers claim that the menu for the field level seats states, “A 20% service charge will be added to the listed prices. Additional gratuity is at your discretion.” The case is entitled Ryan et al. v. Legends Hospitality, LLC, and the proposed class allegedly consists of one hundred members.

The case is notable in that it highlights an increasingly rare phenomena – – a divergence between state and federal wage and hour law. Under the federal law, the Fair Labor Standards Act, a compulsory service charge does not constitute a tip, but rather is counted toward the employer’s gross receipts. In contrast, the NY Labor Law, provides that an employer cannot “retain any part of a gratuity or any charge purported to be a gratuity for an employee.”

The New York Court of Appeals has previously interpreted this language to require that an employer is prohibited from withholding a mandatory service charge or fee if a “reasonable patron” would have believed the service charge to be gratuity. Accordingly, the employers in Ryan et al. v. Legends Hospitality, LLC appear to have a difficult road ahead of them since the menu states, as alleged by plaintiffs, that “additional gratuity is at your discretion.”

The lesson here is that employers need to be mindful of state, as well as federal, wage and hour law. While state and federal law is typically consistent, a difference such as discussed in Ryan et al. v. Legends Hospitality, LLC, can lead to significant problems.

A group of employees has filed a lawsuit against a high-end Greek restaurant situate in the vacation haven of the Hamptons.  The plaintiffs, servers, are alleging that the employer improperly implemented a tip-pooling policy that violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  Four employees filed the case, but the allegation is there are 75 others similarly situated.  There has lately been a rash of tip pool class and collective actions filed, with large settlements and verdicts inuring to the plaintiffs.

This is because unless a tip pool is correctly implemented, the employer loses a significant advantage that it enjoyed, namely, the taking of the tip credit and then major minimum wage violations occur.   The case is entitled Sierra v. Orama Inc and was filed in the Southern District of New York.

Under the federal law (and most states), employers may take a tip credit, as concerns their tipped employees, i.e. waiters, busboys, bartenders, etc.  This means that the restaurant need not pay the full minimum wage (i.e. $7.25 per hour) but it pays only a small fraction of that (approximately 50%) with the assumption that the employee will derive the balance of at least the minimum wage from customers leaving tips.

If, however, employees who do not “customarily and regularly” receive tips are included in the pool, or a management employee shares in the pool, the validity of the pool is destroyed and with that destruction, the tip credits that had been taken by the employer are also ruled invalid.  That means for each hour worked by the tip employee, there is a shortfall for payment of the minimum wage. That means large-dollar violations.

The plaintiffs’ theory herein is that managers shared in the tip pool.  This has been the allegation in a number of cases emanating out of New York City restaurants, some of them very famous.  The lesson for restaurant employers is to ensure that managers have no share in the tip pool.  If uncertain as to whether someone is a true “manager,” it is safer to consider them as such and not to include them in the tip pool.

The downside is a very, very upset stomach for the employer.