MN Supreme Court: Restaurants can’t fire workers who won’t share tips

A divided Minnesota Supreme Court Wednesday upheld a waiter’s court victory over the restaurant owner who fired him because he wouldn’t share his tips with the workers who clean tables.

Todd Burt was fired by Bunny’s Bar and Grill in St. Louis Park in July 2014 after he was told by his supervisor to share the tips with people clearing his tables. Burt claimed sharing the tips violated state law.

Under the state’s Fair Labor Standards Act, no employer may require an employee to contribute or share a gratuity received by the employee with the employer or other employees or to contribute any gratuity to a fund or pool.

But the bar said there’s no language in the bill preventing an employer from firing an employee for not sharing tips. Nor does it allow for an employee to sue for wrongful discharge, the bar owner said.

In her opinion on behalf of the majority today, Supreme Court Justice Natalie Hudson called that interpretation “unreasonable.”

Rackner (the company that owns the restaurant) improperly and coercively injected itself into a decision— whether employees will share gratuities—that the statute explicitly leaves to the discretion of employees.

Under Rackner’s interpretation, an employer would violate the MFLSA only when its unlawful threat actually compels compliance by the employee. But nothing in the statute states that the employee must acquiesce in the gratuity-sharing mandate for a violation to occur. To the contrary, the statute is violated once the employer “require[s]” an employee to share a gratuity, whether the employee does so or not.

Indeed, were we to follow Rackner’s logic, employers could lawfully circumvent other MFLSA protections by terminating employees who do not follow the employers’illegal requirements.

In her dissent, however, chief justice Lorie Gildea said employers in Minnesota can fire an employee for any reason or no reason. She said the Legislature has expressly provided a right of an employee to sue in particular instances, but it did not do so when banning forced tip sharing.

“This is so because the statute at issue, does not prohibit employers from terminating employees; it merely says that an employer cannot require tip sharing,” she wrote in the dissent, joined by justice G. Barry Anderson.

In this case, the MFLSA does not specifically address discharge in the tip-sharing context, and maintaining the common-law employment-at-will rule does not render any provision in the MFLSA superfluous or violate a clear mandate in the Act. Even though employers cannot be sued for discharging employees who refuse to share tips, employers are still prohibited from requiring employees to share tips, and they can be punished for violating this statutory prohibition.

When an employer violates the tip-sharing provision, [the statute] states that the commissioner of labor and industry “may require the employer to pay restitution in the amount of the gratuities diverted.” The Legislature also provided other civil, administrative, and criminal remedies. For example, the commissioner may “order the employer to cease and desist from engaging in the violative practice,” and an employee may bring a civil action to recover the diverted gratuities and “an additional equal amount as liquidated damages.”

Burt’s suit against the restaurant was thrown out by a district court judge, but reinstated by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.