In a one-sentence opinion, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) does not prohibit restaurant owners from taking the tips of their employees:
Having carefully considered the written submissions and the arguments of the parties and of the amicus curiae, we conclude there is no free standing claim for relief under Section 203(m) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 203(m), where, as here, there is no allegation that the employer does not pay the minimum wage.
Aguila v. Corporate Caterers IV, Inc., No. 16-15838, 2017 W 1101081 (11th Cir. Mar. 24, 2017).
With that one sentence, the Court affirmed the decision of the trial court in Auguila v. Corporate Caterers, II, Inc., 199 F.Supp.3d 1358 (S.D. Fla. 2016). In that case, the plaintiffs were delivery drivers who claimed that they were supposed to receive tips, but their employer retained some or all of those tips. They did not claim that their employer failed to pay them minimum wage.
At its heart, the FLSA is designed to ensure that employees are paid: (1) minimum wage; and, (2) applicable overtime. Section 203(m) of the FLSA deals with the minimum wage for tipped employees. It allows employer to pay less than the federally-mandated minimum wage by using the employees’ tips as part of wages. In short, the employer-paid wage, plus tips, should exceed minimum wage. This “tip credit” is frequently misused by employers, who are then sued under the FLSA for failing to pay the correct minimum wage.
But, the employees in Aguila did not claim that they were paid less than minimum wage. Instead, they argued that Section 203(m) of the FLSA gave them an independent right to retain their tips. The employees were asking the Court to expand the scope of the FLSA beyond minimum wage and overtime to include a new right to retain tips. They based their arguments on 2011 regulations issued by the United State Department of Labor and a decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (traditionally one of the most liberal federal courts). Despite those arguments, the trial court and the Eleventh Circuit in Aguila declined to expand the FLSA.
Aguila should not be taken as carte blanche authorization for employers to seize their employees’ tips. Aside from morale problems, employees could potentially sue in state court for fraud and conversion — both of which carry the possibility of punitive damages. Instead, Aguila should merely be read as a decision limiting the scope of federal power over employers.