When an employer pays the minimum wage (or more) instead of taking the tip credit, who owns any tips – the employer or the employee? In Marlow v. The New Food Guy, Inc., No. 16-1134 (10th Cir. June 30, 2017), the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held they belong to the employer, who presumably can then either keep them or distribute them in whole or part to employees as it sees fit. This directly conflicts with the Ninth Circuit’s decision last year in Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Ass’n v. Perez, 816 F.3d 1080, 1086-89 (9th Cir. 2016), pet for cert. filed, No. 16-920 (Jan. 19, 2017) and likely sets up a showdown this fall in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The plaintiff in Marlow, who was paid $12 per hour, alleged her employer was obligated to turn over to her a share of all tips paid by catering customers. The Tenth Circuit first held that the statutory language of 29 U.S.C. §203(m), which allows employers the option of paying a reduced hourly wage of $2.13 so long as employees receive enough tips to bring them to the current federal minimum of $7.25, does not apply when the employer pays the full minimum wage, and thus the plaintiff had no claim to any tips. In this regard the Court followed the 2010 decision in Cumbie v. Woody Woo, Inc., 596 F.3d 577 (9th Cir. 2010), as well as a number of cited district court cases.
Crucially, the Court went on to hold that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) had no authority to promulgate its post-Woody Woo regulation, 76 Fed. Reg. 18,855 (April 5, 2011), amending 29 C.F.R. §531.52, which, contrary to Woody Woo, states that tips are the property of the employee whether or not the employer takes the tip credit under section 2013(m). In so doing, it held that although agencies may promulgate rules to fill “ambiguities” or “gaps” in statutes, they cannot regulate when there is no ambiguity or gap that the agency was authorized to fill. It then found (1) there were no “ambiguities” in the statute that needed to be filled, as the statute clearly only applied when an employer sought to use the tip credit; (2) there were no undefined terms in the statute; and (3) there was no statutory directive to regulate the ownership of tips when the employer is not taking the tip credit. In so doing, the Tenth Circuit expressly rejected the Ninth Circuit’s decision last year in Oregon Restaurant, which held that the DOL had the discretion to issue the regulation precisely because the statute was silent on the subject.
Notably, the Supreme Court has four times extended the time for DOL to file its opposition to the petition for certiorari in Oregon Restaurant, most recently on June 30 granting an extension until September 8, 2017. It appears the current DOL may not yet be not sure what position to take as to the validity of its Obama-era regulation. Marlow’s direct conflict with Oregon Restaurant increases the likelihood that either DOL may choose not to defend the regulation or that the Supreme Court will grant review to resolve the conflict when it returns in October.