Seyfarth Synopsis: In an en banc decision, the Ninth Circuit reverses its prior panel opinion rejecting the DOL’s interpretation of FLSA regulations on use of the tip credit to pay regularly tipped employees, finding that the interpretation is consistent with the FLSA regulations.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sitting en banc issued a decision reversing a prior panel opinion from the court that rejected the Department of Labor’s interpretation of FLSA regulations on the use of the tip credit when paying regularly tipped employees. The ruling joins other circuits, other than the Eleventh, that explicitly or implicitly accept the DOL guidance. That DOL guidance, however, can be withdrawn by the DOL at any time.

Under the FLSA 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 interpreting the regulations, contained first in the DOL’s Field Operations Handbook and set forth in an amicus brief, imposes time and duty-based limitations not present in the regulations themselves: 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 provides 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.” The DOL’s guidance has previously been followed by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Fast v. Applebee’s International, Inc. and several lower courts. (We blogged about the Fast decision here.) The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, adopting a decision from the Southern District of Florida, has been the other circuit to refuse to follow the Field Operations Handbook’s guidance, albeit without a detailed discussion of deference to administrative agencies.

In September 2017, a panel of the Ninth Circuit issued its ruling in Marsh v. J. Alexander’s, addressing a number of actions brought by servers and bartenders who alleged that their employers improperly used the tip credit. Relying on the DOL guidance in the Field Operations Handbook, 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 Ninth Circuit panel concluded that the DOL’s Field Operations Handbook was both inconsistent with the FLSA regulations and attempted to create a de facto new regulation such that it did not merit Auer deference. It explicitly rejected the Eighth Circuit’s reasoning in Fast. The plaintiffs shortly thereafter filed a petition for rehearing en banc, which was granted in February 2018.

On September 18, 2018, the Ninth Circuit issued its en banc decision reversing its prior holding. It concluded that, like the statute, the FLSA regulations do not define “related duties” or “occupation,” but suggest that the “DOL likely intended to tie a person’s occupation to her duties.” And, although they define those duties in temporal terms like “occasionally,” the regulations leave undefined the point at which the “transformation” from “occasionally” to a “dual occupation” occurs. According to the Ninth Circuit, the DOL’s Field Operations Handbook therefore addresses these ambiguities by defining “related duties,” imposing a 20% threshold for them, and “mak[ing] explicit the regulations suggestion that occupations are defined by their tasks.” In so holding, the Ninth Circuit expressly realigned itself with the Eighth Circuit’s decision in Fast, leaving the Eleventh Circuit the only one to reject the 20% rule in a brief 2008 decision.

The Ninth Circuit’s reversal is relatively unsurprising given its often employee-friendly rulings. It will also likely embolden plaintiffs’ counsel who have largely driven tip credit litigation premised on the interpretive guidance’s 20% rule. This trend has forced many restaurant and hospitality industry clients to choose between asking servers and bartenders to track their tasks down to the minute, or risk defending a collective action lawsuit based solely on plaintiffs’ testimony that they spent excessive amounts of time on non-tip producing tasks.

Hospitality employers are left with two potential avenues for relief. First, it is possible that the Supreme Court could grant cert in this case. Though the only circuit court to reject the 20% guidance is the Eleventh Circuit, and in an opinion that does not squarely discuss deference to the DOL, at least four justices on the Court may be interested in reviewing a case that grants considerable power to an administrative agency.

Second, and in what could provide immediate relief to restaurant employers, the DOL’s Wage-Hour Division simply could withdraw and revise its Field Operations Handbook guidance setting for the 20% rule. A rule created by an agency without notice and comment rulemaking can be killed without notice and comment rulemaking. The 20% rule is unworkable and breeds litigation, and the DOL could withdraw it and engage in listening sessions and notice and comment rulemaking to generate a more sensible way to ensure that employers pay tipped employees in a fair manner without subjecting them to an impracticable division between tip-producing and non-tip-producing work.

For now, however, hospitality employers should assume the 20% rule is one to be followed and should consult with counsel on ways to minimize so-called “side work” by tipped employees and to reduce exposure to difficult to defend collective and class actions that claim that tipped employees spend more than 20% of their time on work that is not related to tipped duties.