As analyzed in more detail  here, the California Supreme Court recently ruled that the California labor code provision prohibiting employers from taking or sharing in tips left for employees by customers – Cal. Lab. Code § 351 (“Section 351”) – does not provide  private litigants with a right to sue their employers directly for alleged misappropriation of tips. Lu v. Hawaiian Gardens Casino, Inc., No. S171442 (Aug. 9, 2010). 

In Lu, the defendant casino required card dealers to segregate 15 to 20 percent of their tips, which the casino deposited into a tip pool account for distribution to designated employees who provide services to customers.  Employees who received these segregated tips included chip runners, poker tournament coordinators, poker retention coordinators, hosts, customer service representatives, and concierges.  

The California Supreme Court took up Lu, after both the trial and first appellate court held that Plaintiff Lu had no private right to sue under Section 351, to settle a conflict with another intermediate appellate court which held that a private right of action existed under Section 351. See Grodensky v. Artichoke Joe’s Casino. The court addressed the limited question of whether Section 351 created a private right of action for employees.  Without ruling on the legality of the defendant’s tip pool policy, the Court found no private right of action for employees under Section 351, either explicitly or implicitly. However, the Court observed that employees can still pursue Section 351 relief through the Labor Commissioner, or sue for allegedly misappropriated tips under common law or other statutory theories.

Employers should continue to draft and administer their tip pooling policies carefully, in light of federal and state laws and regulations. This point is underscored by the fact that the FLSA provides a private right of action and 100% liquidated damages plus loss of any taken tip credit for misappropriated gratuities.