While the New York State Department of Labor’s new Hospitality Industry Wage Order clarified many wage and hour issues for industry employers, the appropriateness of tip pool participation of certain categories of employee continues to be an area of uncertainty. On January 13, 2011, Federal District Judge Laura Taylor Swain granted summary judgment to Manhattan restaurant Brasserie Ruhlmann (“Restaurant”), on Plaintiffs’ claims that the restaurant violated the FLSA and N.Y. Labor Law (NYLL) by permitting captains and banquet coordinators to participate in the Restaurant’s tip pool. Garcia v. La Revise Assocs. LLC, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3325 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 13, 2011).

The plaintiffs in Garcia were three servers and one busboy at the restaurant, who participated in its tip pool consisting of servers, runners, busboys, captains, bartenders, and the Restaurant’s banquet coordinator. The Plaintiffs alleged that tip pool participation of captains, bartenders and the banquet coordinator violated the FLSA and NYLL because these employees were “employers” (or agents of the employer) within the meaning of the law, or in the alternative were not employees who "customarily and regularly receive tips.” 

Judge Swain disagreed, observing that captains played “a substantial role in customers’ dining experience at the Restaurant by assisting servers, answering questions, and overseeing food service…” Judge Swain also found that the captains did not set the terms and conditions of employment for the front-of-the-house employees who provided the food service. Id. at * 22-23. This is a vital recognition of the role of non-managerial captains in food service. In finding the banquet coordinator an employee who customarily and regularly receives tips, the Court noted that the banquet coordinator “dealt directly with private party hosts in advance of events for planning purposes and worked directly with the hosts and their guests during the events to ensure their satisfaction.” Id. at * 20.

This decision represents the first substantive judicial direction on the lawful composition of the tip pool in a New York fine dining establishment in over a decade. See Ayres v. 127 Restaurant Corp., 12 F. Supp. 2d 305 (S.D.N.Y. 1998). While industry employers should be gratified by this favorable ruling recognizing the role of captains and banquet coordinators in providing customer services, they should continue to analyze the composition of their tip pool based on the realities of their workplace, not the job titles assigned to the various service positions.  For example, in order to participate in such a pool, captains must not be managerial employees. With respect to banquet coordinators, each business must conduct a thorough analysis of the banquet coordinator’s service and non-service duties in order to analyze whether including the position in any pool is a viable option.