Illegal tip-pool lawsuits hang over Aspen restaurants
ASPEN – Three restaurants in Aspen and one in Vail are now the targets of two class-action lawsuits that accuse them of operating illegal tip pools.Last week the attorney for the Cache Cache restaurant on Hopkins Avenue, the first of the four high-end dining establishments to be sued, on Jan. 14, filed a court brief asking the federal suit to be dismissed. The brief was a formal response to the suit and claims that Cache Cache acted in “good faith and full compliance with all federal and state laws” when Sandro Torres, who filed the complaint, worked at the restaurant.Torres is the only plaintiff so far in the suit against Cache Cache, which says he was employed there as a back waiter and food runner from February 2004 to March 2008 and from January 2011 to April.But Torres is joined by three other plaintiffs – Marcello Liberona, Kenneth Robison and Joseph Quigley – in a suit filed Feb. 14 against I Scoppiati Inc., which does business as Campo de Fiori Ristorante on Hopkins Avenue in Aspen as well as Vail, and Giba Inc., which runs Gisella Restaurant on Aspen’s Main Street.”Defendants are a chain of three high-end Italian restaurants in Vail and Aspen,” the suit says, adding they “violated state and federal law by taking the ‘tip credit’ while also misusing employee tips. In particular, Defendants required service staff, including Plaintiffs, to share a significant portion of their tips with management personnel.”The suits, which were both filed in U.S. District Court in Denver, are similar in nature to a high-profile one that was settled last week. TV celebrity chef Mario Batali, a frequent guest of the well-heeled and popular Food & Wine Classic in Aspen festival, settled a suit in which he agreed to pay $5.25 million to his eight restaurants’ workers who, among their allegations, said that his eateries skimmed money from their tip pools to pay other expenses.The suit claimed that Batali’s tip-pool operations violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, a claim also made in the Aspen cases, which additionally allege violation of the Colorado Wage Claims Act and breach of contract.Both Aspen tip-pool suits were filed by Fort Collins attorney Brian Gonzales, who has not responded to telephone messages seeking comment. The suits claim that the four restaurants paid the defendants less than minimum wage, a standard practice in the restaurant industry for regularly tipped employees. But for restaurants to take a tip credit against the minimum wage, they must adhere to state labor laws, which allow for tip pools, the suits say.By Colorado law, the suits allege, the only employees who can collect from a tip pool are “front of the house” workers such as servers and hostesses. But at Cache Cache, such employees as chefs, dishwashers and food preparers – who were not regularly tipped – also participated in the tip pool, the suit says.And at Campo de Fiori and Gisella, the regularly tipped employees were required to contribute to a pool that dispersed tips to other workers. The pool also helped “pay other restaurant expenses,” the suit says. The suit does not say when the four plaintiffs worked at either Gisella or Campo de Fiori or what their actual positions were.”Defendants are liable for, among other things, paying a sub-minimum wage to current and former employees and for all tips diverted improperly,” the suit says.Both suits aim to achieve class-action status for “all current and former employees of defendants for whom defendants took the tip credit.”The Campo De Fiori/Gisella De Fiori suit says the class size exceeds 150 members; the Cache Cache complaint says the class size is “numerous.” The suits have yet to receive class-action certification from the court.Cache Cache attorney Peter Thomas, in last week’s answer, argued that the suit against Cache Cache should not receive class-action status because it does not meet the requirements to do so. Thomas did not return a telephone left at his Aspen office Tuesday seeking comment.Judge Lewis T. Babcock is presiding over the Cache Cache suit. Chief Judge Wiley Y. Daniel has been assigned the Campo De Fiori/Gisella firstname.lastname@example.org
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