In Samiento v World Yacht, 10 NY3d 70 (2008), the New York Court of Appeals held that whether a labeled service charge is a “gratuity” for purposes of N.Y. Labor Law § 196-d that must be distributed to service staff depends on the “reasonable customer’s” understanding. One of the many questions unanswered by the decision is whether this standard applies only prospectively to § 196-d compliance following the Court’s February 2008 ruling. In a blow to industry employers, the Appellate Division’s First Department, the intermediate appeals court encompassing Manhattan, has ruled that employers can be subject to liability for undistributed service charges prior to the World Yacht decision. Ramirez v Mansions Catering, Inc., 2010 NY Slip Op 4857, 2 (N.Y. App. Div. 1st Dep’t June 8, 2010). A New York federal court is currently considering the same issue. 

Generally, the question of retroactivity turns on whether a new judicial decision constitutes “the creation of a new legal principle.” Id. at * 1. If it does not, then it is simply an interpretation of the law, and has retroactive application. In Ramirez, the Court observes that the question answered by World Yacht had been acknowledged but, importantly, not answered by the Court of Appeals’ earlier opinion on the same subject. Id. at * 2 citing Bynog v Cipriani Group, (298 AD2d 164 (2002), affd as mod 1 NY3d 193 (2003). Because the legal issue addressed in World Yacht – namely “whether mandatory service charges could constitute "gratuities" under Section 196-d” – had not been resolved previously, World Yacht “was not a departure from existing law” and did not constitute a “new rule.” Id.  This conclusion ignores the fact that the entire industry generally believed that, consistent with federal law, the combination of using the term “service charge” and taxing the collected monies provided an employer with the right to retain the collected monies in whole or in part.

Food service and hospitality industry employers have been focused on this issue for over 2 years. While all such employers should ensure their current practices fully comply with this decision, at least based on this decision, liability can be imposed for periods prior to February 2008 within the 6 year statute of limitations.