Seyfarth Synopsis: The Ninth Circuit has created a circuit split by rejecting the DOL’s interpretation of FLSA regulations on use of the tip credit to pay regularly tipped employees, finding that the interpretation is both inconsistent with the regulation and attempts to create a de facto new regulation.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an important and restaurant-friendly decision rejecting the Department of Labor’s interpretation of FLSA regulations on the use of the tip credit when paying regularly tipped employees.

In Marsh v. J. Alexander’s, the Ninth Circuit addressed a number of actions brought by servers and bartenders who alleged that their employers improperly used the tip credit and thus failed to pay them the required minimum wage. Relying on DOL interpretive guidance, the plaintiffs asserted that their non-tip generating duties took up more than 20% of their work hours, that they were employed in dual occupations, and that they were thus owed the regular minimum wage for that time. The district court dismissed the case, holding that Marsh had not alleged a dual occupation and that deference to the DOL guidance underpinning his theory of the case was unwarranted. Marsh appealed.

Under the FLSA’s regulations, an individual employed in dual occupations–one tipped and one not–cannot be paid using the tip credit for hours worked in the non-tipped occupation. The regulations clarify, however, that “[s]uch a situation is distinguishable from that of a waitress who spends part of her time cleaning and setting tables, toasting bread, making coffee[,] and occasionally washing dishes or glasses. . . . Such related duties in an occupation that is a tipped occupation need not by themselves be directed toward producing tips.” Yet, current DOL guidance imposes time and duty-based limitations not present in the regulations: the tip credit may not be used if an employee spends over 20% of hours in a workweek performing duties related to the tipped occupation but not themselves tip-generating. The guidance goes on to state that an employer also may not take the tip credit for time spent on duties not related to the tipped occupation because such an employee is “effectively employed in dual jobs.” That guidance had been followed by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and several lower courts. It created a feeding frenzy among some plaintiffs’ lawyers, causing restaurant employers to ask servers and bartenders to track their time spent on various activities down to the minute, or risk facing a collective action lawsuit in which they have to try to rebut a servers’ claims that they had spent excessive time on activities that arguably were not tip producing.

The Ninth Circuit, however, concluded in Marsh that the DOL’s guidance was both inconsistent with the FLSA regulations and attempted to create a de facto new regulation such that it did not merit deference. In particular, the court noted the regulations’ focus on dual occupations or jobs as contrasted with the DOL guidance: “[i]nstead of providing further guidance on what constitutes a distinct job, [the DOL] takes an entirely different approach; it . . . disallows tip credits on a minute-by-minute basis based on the type and quantity of tasks performed. Because the dual jobs regulation is concerned with when an employee has two jobs, not with differentiating between tasks within a job, the [DOL’s] approach is inapposite and inconsistent with the dual jobs regulation.” Moreover, the DOL guidance “creates an alternative regulatory approach with new substantive rules . . . [and] ‘is de facto a new regulation’ masquerading as an interpretation.”

In so holding, the Ninth Circuit broke with the Eighth Circuit’s 2011 decision in Fast v. Applebee’s International, Inc. and explicitly rejected the Eighth Circuit’s analysis in that case. We previously blogged about the Fast decision here.

Marsh creates a circuit split and is particularly notable coming from the frequently employee-friendly Ninth Circuit. There remains, however, contrary authority in many parts of the country, and the decision has no bearing on state laws, some of which may nonetheless follow the DOL’s reasoning. It’s also likely that this Ninth Circuit panel does not have the last word on this issue. This opinion could receive further review by the full Ninth Circuit or by the Supreme Court, and if the Supreme Court does not resolve the circuit split, other appellate courts are likely to weigh in. Regardless, the decision points out the absurdities of the DOL’s current position and demonstrates the need for guidance on the issue from the DOL once its’ appointees are in place.