California Supreme Court Rejects Private Right of Action for Plaintiffs in Tip Pooling Cases Under Labor Code section 351

Hawaiian Gardens from the 605
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The California Supreme Court today issued its opinion in Lu v. Hawaiian Gardens Casino, Inc., an eagerly anticpiated decision where the issue was whether Labor Code section 351 provides a private cause of action for employees to recover any misappropriated tips from employers.  The Court concluded that “section 351 does not contain a private right to sue.”

Labor Code section 351 prohibits employers from taking any gratuity patrons leave for their employees, and declares that such gratuity is “the sole property of the employee or employees to whom it was paid, given, or left for.” Several appellate opinions have held that this prohibition, at least in the restaurant context, does not extend to employer-mandated tip pooling, whereby employees must pool and share their tips with other employees. (See Leighton v. Old Heidelberg, Ltd. (1990) 219 Cal. App. 3d 1062, 1067 (Leighton); see also Etheridge v. Reins Internat. California, Inc. (2009) 172 Cal. App. 4th 908, 921-922; Budrow v. Dave & Buster’s of California, Inc. (2009) 171 Cal.App.4th 875, 878-884; Jameson v. Five Feet Restaurant, Inc. (2003) 107 Cal.App.4th 138, 143.)

Plaintiff Louie Hung Kwei Lu (plaintiff) was employed as a card dealer at defendant Hawaiian Gardens Casino, Inc. (the Casino), from 1997 to 2003. The Casino had a written tip pooling policy.  Plaintiff brought a class action against the Casino and its general manager. His complaint alleged that the Casino‟s tip pooling policy amounted to a conversion of his tips, and violated the employee protections under sections 221 (prohibiting wage kickbacks by employer), 351 (prohibiting employer from taking, collecting, or receiving employees‟ gratuities), 450 (prohibiting employer from compelling employees to patronize employer), 1197 (prohibiting payment of less than minimum wage), and 2802 (indemnifying employee for necessary expenditures). The complaint also alleged that the Casino‟s conduct giving rise to each statutory violation constituted an unfair business practice under the unfair competition law (UCL) (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17200 et seq.).

The trial court granted the Casino‟s motion for judgment on the pleadings on the causes of action based on sections 351 and 450. It agreed with the Casino that neither section contained a private right to sue. The court also granted the Casino‟s successive motions for summary adjudication on the remaining causes of action. Plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeal held, “pursuant to the analysis in Leighton, that tip pooling in the casino industry is not prohibited by Labor Code section 351.” However, it reversed the trial court‟s order granting summary adjudication of the UCL cause of action based on section 351. While section 351 itself contains no private right to sue, the Court of Appeal concluded this provision may nonetheless serve as a predicate for a UCL claim because plaintiff presented triable issues of fact as to whether section 351 prohibited certain employees who participated in the tip pool from doing so because they were “agents” of the Casino.

Less than two months later, another Court of Appeal expressly disagreed with the holding on section 351 of the appellate court below. (See Grodensky v. Artichoke Joe’s Casino (2009) 171 Cal.App.4th 1399, review granted June 24, 2009, S172237.) The Supreme Court granted review to resolve the conflict on this narrow issue.

The Court concluded that the statutory language does not “unmistakabl[y]” reveal a legislative intent to provide wronged employees a private right to sue.  Based on a review of section 351‟s legislative history, the Court also concluded that there is no clear indication that the legislative history showed an intent to create a private cause of action under the statute.

Justice Chin wrote the opinion for the California Supreme Court, with all other Jusitices concurring.  Judge David L. Minning of the Los Angeles Superior Court was the trial judge.

The attorneys for appellant were Spiro Moss, Dennis F. Moss, and Andrew Kopel.

David Arbogast submitted an amicus curiae brief for the Consumer Attorneys of California.

Respondents were represented by Tracey A. Kennedy and Michael St. Denis

Anna Segobia Masters and Jennifer Rappoport submitted an amicus curiae brief for the California Gaming Association on behalf of Defendants and Respondents.

Dennis F. Moss and Tracey A. Kennedy argued in front of the Court.

By CHARLES H. JUNG

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