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Court backs country-club workers in case over who gets the 'service charge' levied for events

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that a Canton country club that withheld a 10% "service charge" from workers at private events may have to hand the money over to the workers because, come on, anybody reading a contract with that phrase would assume the money is meant for tips.

The court, of course, doesn't rely on common sense, but on state law. And in this case, the court ruled, 5-1, that the state tips law is pretty clear as well and that the Blue Hill Country Club was trying to twist the state tips law beyond recognition and that, instead of dismissing a lawsuit by workers there instead sent the case back for possible trial.

Blue Hill's interpretation of the act transforms a law that clearly is meant to help employees secure their tips into one that would aid employers in frustrating this purpose. This interpretation is contrary to our settled canons of construction because it requires us to disregard the unambiguous language employed in the invoices, and instead substitute those words for the parties' intent. This we cannot do.

Consistent with well-established principles of statutory construction, the act requires employers to proceed with due care in drafting bills, invoices, and charges to patrons. Even if an employer's carelessness in drafting were to result in its employees unintendedly acquiring proceeds that the employer planned to retain, that result is mandated by a plain reading of the statute, consistent with the Legislature's intent.

The club had argued - and the Massachusetts Appeals Court had agreed - that the club was covered under a provision of the state law that would let the club levy a 10% "service" charge that it kept as long as it explained that in its contracts with people renting its space, specifically by giving it a name other than "service charge," which has a well accepted meaning.

This, the court said, the golf club didn't do. It noted that the first invoice sent to customers, before their events, refers to a single 20% "Service Charges and Gratuities" fees and that only in the final invoice sent after the event are the two broken into two separate fees, with no explanation why or that the "service" charge would not be given to employees as tips.

Filings in the case.

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PDF icon Complete ruling96.61 KB


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"20% services charges and gratuities...sure, tips are in there somewhere. The actual tip percentage is unimportant. Don't worry, we'll take care of it."

See you in Hell, Blue Hill Country Club management.

Voting closed 67

I worked at a cc to help pay for undergrad. Working those special events usually meant 18 hour days.

Voting closed 0

Do these country club owners not, like, use businesses? Even places like delivery apps that don't strike me as particularly ethical will clearly spell out that "usage fee is for our operating expenses and does not go to the driver while 100% of your tip goes to the driver" or similar. Some of these do use "service fee" for the extra charge, but they clearly spell out that it's not the staff person's tip. Is it that hard?

Voting closed 33

Sometimes it seems there is no end to greed.
They probably counted on the employees being too worried about getting cut out of shifts to complain or being uninformed about labor laws. That scam may have worked in the past but not for them this time.
Good on the employees who objected!!

Voting closed 52

…. But I have read that, measured by dollar impact, wage theft by employers is by far the most significant crime out there.

Voting closed 6

How about a law that the price is the price? No more saying your moose meat and onion sandwich will cost $12.99, but $12.99 actually means $15.63 because of all the mandatory add-on fees and surcharges.

Voting closed 15