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Chan v. Sung Yue Tung Corp.

February 1, 2007

HENG CHAN, SHING TAO AU, YAN BIN CAO, AI YIN CHEN, WAN ZHEN JIANG, FONG LI, JIAN YUN LIN, WEI CHAO TAN, FENG QIN ZENG TANG, SUM KAY WONG AND YONG CAI ZHANG, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
SUNG YUE TUNG CORP. D/B/A 88 PALACE, KUNG TAK YEUNG, GUI YANG, GONG GUI GUAN, CHEUK HONG LAU, AND YEUNG CHAO LO, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gerard E. Lynch, District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiffs, a group of eleven waiters, busboys, and captains who worked at a the 88 Palace Restaurant in New York City's Chinatown, brought this case alleging violations of federal and state labor laws by the restaurant and its managers and owners. The parties tried the case before the Court from November 27 to December 6, 2006. This opinion sets forth the Court's findings of fact and conclusions of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a).

FINDINGS OF FACT

I. The Parties

A. Plaintiffs

1. Plaintiffs Heng Chan, Shing Tao Au, Yan Bin Cao, Ai Yin Chen, Wan Zhen Jiang, Fong Li, Jian Yun Lin, Wei Chao Tan, Feng Qin Zheng Tang, Sum Kay Wong, and Yong Cai Zhang are eleven Chinese immigrants who are current or former waiters, waitresses, buspersons, and captains at a Chinese restaurant known as 88 Palace Restaurant, located at 88 East Broadway, New York, New York 10002 (the "restaurant"). The restaurant is located in a mall in Chinatown.

2. Plaintiffs bring this action against defendants Sun Yue Tung Corp. d/b/a 88 Palace Restaurant, Gui Yang, Kung Tak Yeung, Gong Gui Guan, Cheuk Hong Lau, and Yeung Chao Lo with respect to acts or omissions occurring after August 8, 2002.*fn1

3. Prior to August 8, 2002, the restaurant was known as Triple 8 Palace. On August 8, 2002, the restaurant was sold to defendant Sun Yue Tung Corp., a New York corporation formed by some of the defendants. After the sale, Sun Yue Tung Corp. opened for business as 88 Palace Restaurant.

4. At all relevant times, the restaurant has been a business or enterprise engaged in interstate commerce with annual gross sales over $500,000. The restaurant annually purchases and receives goods valued in excess of $5,000 at its New York facility from points outside of New York.

5. Plaintiff Heng Chan was employed as a waiter by 88 Palace from on or about August 14, 2002 until December 31, 2002.

6. Plaintiff Shing Tao Au has been employed as a waiter by 88 Palace from on or about August 14, 2002 through the present.

7. Plaintiff Yan Bin Cao has been employed by 88 Palace as a captain from on or about August 14, 2002 through the present.

8. Plaintiff Ai Yin Chen was employed by 88 Palace as a busboy from on or about August 14, 2002 through April 18, 2004.

9. Plaintiff Wan Zhen Jiang was employed by 88 Palace as a busgirl from on or about August 14, 2002 through on or about June 21, 2004, and again from on or about December 18, 2004 through the present.

10. Plaintiff Fong Li was employed by 88 Palace as a waiter from on or about August 14, 2002 through on or about May 28, 2004.

11. Plaintiff Jian Yun Lin has been employed by 88 Palace as a waiter from on or about August 14, 2002 through the present.

12. Plaintiff Wei Chao Tan has been employed by 88 Palace as a captain from on or about August 14, 2002 through the present.

13. Plaintiff Feng Qin Zheng Tang was employed by 88 Palace as a captain from on or about August 14, 2002 through February 23, 2006.

14. Plaintiff Sum Kay Wong has been employed by 88 Palace as a captain from on or about August 14, 2002 through the present.

15. Plaintiff Yong Cai Zheng was employed by 88 Palace as a busboy from on or about August 14, 2002 until September 14, 2003.

B. Defendants and Managers of the Restaurant

16. Defendant Kung Tak Yeung assembled a group of investors to purchase Triple 8 Palace in August 2002. The investors included Yeung, Gui Yang, Yeung Chao Lo, and Gong Gui Guan. (P. Ex. 13.) The investors purchased the restaurant for $1.3 million, with each investor contributing a percentage of the purchase price that was commensurate with his ownership interest.

17. At all relevant times, Gui Yang has been 88 Palace's president and largest shareholder, with approximately five and one half shares. (P. Ex. 13 at 88-003696.) At all relevant times, Gui Yang has also been the head manager of the restaurant. His responsibilities have included hiring and firing employees, supervising operations in the dining room and kitchen, buying supplies, managing the payroll, and signing checks.

18. At all relevant times, Kung Tak Yeung has owned three and one-half shares of 88 Palace and been an officer of 88 Palace. At all relevant times, he has also been a manager at 88 Palace and has been in charge of public relations and employee relations at the restaurant. Kung Tak Yeung signs employee paychecks and other checks on behalf of 88 Palace, and can hire and fire employees.

19. At all relevant times, Yeung Chao Lo has owned three shares of 88 Palace and been an officer and manager of 88 Palace who has assisted Gui Yang in running the restaurant. Yeung Chao Lo signs checks on behalf of 88 Palace, and can hire and fire employees.

20. Cheuk Hong Lau served as the general manager at 88 Palace from the time it opened in August 2002 until October 2003. He had the authority to hire and fire employees, set schedules and tip shares, and generally assign work and supervise employees.

21. Gong Gui Guan owned three shares of 88 Palace from August 2002 until late 2004 or early 2005. (See Tr. 316.*fn2 ) He also worked at the restaurant, where he raised and cared for live shrimp and prepared cooked shrimp. The evidence did not establish that Gong Gui Guan exercised managerial power. He wore the same uniform as a waiter, and as plaintiff Sum Kay Wong acknowledged, Gong Gui Guan did the same work with shrimp that plaintiff Yong Cai Zhang, a busboy, did with snails and clams. (Tr. 96.) Yong Cai Zhang, when asked how his job differed from Gong Gui Guan's, was unable to identify any specific differences. (Tr. 400.)

22. Gong Gui Guan may have had certain unique job responsibilities and a measure of discretion. It appears, for example, that Gong Gui Guan on some occasions was the person who physically took some of the money from the tip collection box to bring to the part-time workers to whom it was paid. (Tr. 162.) Also, various plaintiffs testified that he had more flexibility regarding the area where he worked and the ability to leave the restaurant to "run out to buy things" (Tr. 66), and plaintiff Sum Kay Wong testified that as the distributor of shrimp, "if [Gong Gui Guan was] in favor of certain customers, he would make a bigger scoop on that plate." (Tr. 65.)

23. Plaintiffs claimed that Gong Gui Guan had the power to hire and fire employees, but there was little evidence of this. Plaintiff Wan Zhen Jiang claimed that Gong Gui Guan hired and supervised her (P. Ex. 19 ¶ 13), but when asked at trial to provide specific illustrations of what he did that constituted supervising her, she was able to provide no relevant examples. (Tr. 412.) In her deposition, Wan Zhen Jiang stated that Gong Gui Guan had asked her whether she had a valid employment authorization card (Wan Zhen Jiang Dep. 33-34), but even if true, this appears to have been a ministerial rather than a managerial function.

24. Although Gong Gui Guan may have had special responsibilities and a favored position among the employees, this does not amount to a supervisory role. It is not clear why Gong Gui Guan, if indeed he was a manager, would give himself a .8 tip share, the share received by waiters, rather than a 1.06 tip share, the share received by captains. Moreover, Gong Gui Guan participated in a meeting of waiters and captains to discuss possible actions against the restaurant to remedy perceived labor rights violations (Tr. 88, 294), which strongly suggests that he was not regarded as their employer. In light of all the evidence, the Court concludes that Gong Gui Guan was not a manager or supervisor.

25. The corporation indicated in filings with the New York State Department of State that Dai Hai Nan, a non-party who is presently general manager of the restaurant, owned one-half of one share in the restaurant. (P. Ex. 13 at 88-3706.) The evidence indicated, however, that although Dai Hai Nan originally wished to become an investor, he quickly discovered that he could not afford to do so, and the check he had written to the corporation was voided and returned to him uncashed. (P. Ex. 33 at 4.) The Court credits Dai Hai Nan's testimony that he was never an owner of the restaurant and that he did not have management responsibilities.

Unlike many other witnesses, Dai Hai Nan's demeanor on the witness stand was never defensive, and there is no apparent reason why the other defendants would deny Dai Hai Nan's ownership interest while freely admitting Gong Gui Guan's.

26. Moreover, there was little evidence of Dai Hai Nan's involvement in management activities prior to his promotion to general manager in late 2004. As with Gong Gui Guan, the plaintiffs alleged that Dai Han Nan had the power to hire and fire employees, but direct testimony concerning his activities pertained more to his role in processing hiring-related paperwork than to his role in decisions about who would work at the restaurant. Dai Hai Nan stopped participating in the tip pool when he was promoted to general manager. (Tr. 689.) Accordingly, the Court finds that Dai Hai Nan was not a manager or owner of the restaurant at any time during which he participated in the tip pool.

II. Wage and Hour Practices at 88 Palace

27. At all relevant times, plaintiffs have received income in two ways: through weekly paychecks, and through cash distributions of tips at the end of each night. While wages are calculated on an hourly basis, tips are not.

28. At all relevant times, the restaurant has taken a tip credit to satisfy federal and state minimum wage requirements for waiters, busboys and captains when those employees worked banquet shifts. In other words, the restaurant pays its employees wages that are below minimum requirements and claims that it is entitled to do so because the employees receive tips. Employees are paid the same hourly or weekly wage, based on the maximum available tip credit, whether they work banquet or non-banquet shifts.

29. Waiters and busboys at 88 Palace, including plaintiffs, received wages of no more than $3.30 per hour from 2002 to 2004, no more than $3.85 per hour during 2005, and no more than $4.35 per hour during 2006.

30. Captains received no more than $3.70 per hour from 2002 to 2004, no more than $4.25 per hour in 2005, and no more than $4.75 per hour in 2006.

31. During the same time period, non-tipped employees at 88 Palace, such as dishwashers, were paid the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour.

32. Waiters, busboys and captains at 88 Palace not infrequently work a span of hours that exceeds 10 hours in a single day (including breaks). For example, on many days, waiters and captains start work at approximately 11:00 a.m. and finish work at approximately 11:00 or 11:30 p.m., with a half hour off for lunch and an employer-mandated two-hour afternoon break.

88 Palace has never compensated these employees for an additional hour of work on the days that their spread of hours has exceeded 10 hours.

33. At all relevant times, the total compensation received by all plaintiffs exceeded the amount they would have received if paid a flat hourly wage equal to the legally-required New York State minimum wage, including all overtime requirements.

III. Tip-Sharing and Banquets at 88 Palace

A. The Tip Pool

34. The restaurant has, at all times, operated a tip-pooling system through which tips left by customers are combined and then redistributed among the waiters, busboys, captains, and the restaurant, according to a tip pool share formula determined by management. The management has also used money from the tip pool to pay a portion of the approximately $9.00 hourly rate paid to part-time employees. Employees who participate in the tip pool are assigned a number between 0 and 2 that determines their share of the tip pool; the higher the number, the greater the share.

35. The various plaintiffs received tip pool shares ranging from .055 to 1.06.

36. Defendant Gong Gui Guan has at all relevant times received a .8 share in the tip pool. Dai Hai Nan shared in the tip pool at 88 Palace from the time the restaurant opened in August 2002 until late 2004, when he became general manager.

B. Banquets and the 15 Percent Additional Payment

37. Along with meals served to individual tables, the restaurant offers patrons the opportunity to pre-reserve large parties or banquets. These banquets are reserved and paid for by a host, rather than by the individual diners who attend the banquets.

38. Aside from the cost of the food served at the banquet, banquet hosts pay an additional amount of 15 percent. This 15 percent payment is distributed on the following basis: first, a deduction is made to pay half the wages of the part-time workers who worked at the banquet. 25 percent of the remaining amount is kept by the restaurant, while 75 percent is added to the tip pool (which also contains the tips from non-banquet customers). Thus, at the end of each day, the tip pool includes (1) the amounts left as tips by non-banquet customers on their tables or in credit card payments, and (2) 75 percent of the additional amount paid by banquet customers, not including the portion of that additional amount used to pay part-time workers.

C. The Additional Payment Functionally Replaces Tips

39. Unlike non-banquet customers, who leave money on the table or with their credit card charge as a tip for their servers, banquet customers at 88 Palace almost never leave any additional tip for those who have served them, other than the 15 percent additional payment discussed above. In other words, customers who would ordinarily leave tips for servers do not do so when they pay the 15 percent additional charge at issue.

40. Banquet hosts rarely decline to pay the 15 percent payment. Although certain plaintiffs did remember isolated instances on which hosts paid significantly less than 15 percent (Tr. 199, 219), they acknowledged that this had happened "maybe once or twice" in the entire period the restaurant was opened. (Tr. 57-59 (Wong Direct).) It is also rare for banquet hosts to include in their payment an additional amount beyond the 15 percent payment.

D. The 15 Percent Payment Is Described To And Understood By Customers As Tips

41. The additional 15 percent payment is referred to by defendants and their employees by the Mandarin and Cantonese words used to refer to tips. (See, e.g., 12/6/06 Tr. 43.)

42. From the time that 88 Palace opened in August 2002 until January 2005, the banquet menus distributed to customers included Chinese characters meaning "15% tips," indicating that an amount equivalent to 15% of the cost of the banquet would be added to each bill. (P. Exs. 3, 4.) In January 2005, some time after the commencement of this litigation, the management changed the character in the menus to one that can be read as "service charge" or "tips." However, the 15 percent payment is collected and distributed in the same manner as before.

43. The defendants and other managers at 88 Palace have never informed banquet customers, on the banquet menu, banquet bill, or otherwise, that of the 15 percent additional tips or surchage, only 75 percent would be provided to the waiters, busboys, and captains, and 25 percent would be retained by the restaurant.*fn3

44. Instead, the defendants and other managers have advised customers that the 15 percent added to the bill was for tips for the banquet servers. Numerous witnesses testified with varying degrees of specificity to having overheard managers so advising banquet hosts and customers. For example, Fen Qin Zeng Tang remembered specific occasions on which she personally translated such comments made by Cantonese-speaking managers to Fuzhou-speaking customers. (P. Ex. 8 ¶ 11 (Tang Aff.).)

45. The defendants' claim that customers were advised of the restaurant's practice of retaining a portion of the 15% payment was not persuasive; indeed, some of the restaurant's managers, testifying for the defense, carefully avoided making this claim. For example, Cheuk Hong Lau testified that he had not discussed the subject with customers (12/6/06 Tr. 17), and Hang Li, the supervisor generally responsible for working with banquet hosts to plan their events, testified that it was not his practice to inform customers that the restaurant would retain a portion of the 15% payment. (Id. at 23, 32.) In fact, Hang Li testified that he had never advised customers that the restaurant would retain a portion of the additional payment. (12/6/06 Tr. 37.)

46. Defendant's witness Dai Hai Nan, general manager of the restaurant, testified that he had said to banquet hosts that the 15 percent amount added to the banquet bill was a tip to be paid to the servers. (Tr. 690.) The Court credits Dai Hai Nan's testimony. As noted above, his responses in general were not defensive or evasive; in fact, when counsel informed the Court that direct examination was complete, he protested, "But I have lots of stories to tell." (Id.) Moreover, Dai Hai Nan had no incentive to fabricate an answer that would disadvantage his employer. His testimony therefore supports the Court's conclusion that employees and customers of the restaurant generally understood the 15% additional payment to have been tips.

47. According to Wendy Soo Hoo, the restaurant's bookkeeper, the 15% additional payment was not separately billed to the customer. Instead, she calculated the total banquet receipts after the banquets, subtracted 25% from the 15% additional payment, and then distributed the rest to the servers. (Wendy Soo Hoo Dep. 29, 31-32.) The bill presented to banquet hosts did not separately identify the 15 percent charge. (Tr. 56 (Wong Direct).) The receipt given to the host at banquets makes no mention of the 15% payment. (Wendy Soo Hoo Dep. 35.)

48. Gui Yang claimed that the restaurant routinely provided a bill of some kind to banquet hosts after their meal on which food charges and the 15% additional payment were separately tabulated. (Tr. 602-604, 637.) If true, this might to some extent support defendants' claim that the 15% charge was a mandatory additional fee, distinguishable from the tips that are traditionally left by customers in addition to the amounts billed to them by a restaurant. Gui Yang's testimony on this question was not credible, however, because the bills Gui Yang described were not produced in discovery or at trial. Gui Yang's testimony that the bills were not retained because they were not needed is inconsistent with the restaurant's general practices, as evidenced by the fact that the restaurant retained and produced at trial copies of almost every conceivable document exchanged in the course of transactions between customers and servers at the restaurant, including menus containing dim sum orders (Tr. 602) and cash register print-outs totaling the payments received from each banquet. (P. Ex. 32.) The restaurant even saved meal bills for lunches,*fn4 which makes it difficult to imagine why bills for banquets - which served a similar function, but involved much larger sums of money - would not have been retained.

49. Moreover, it appeared from the sample banquet receipt introduced by plaintiffs that the bookkeeper had for that particular receipt calculated the amount of the 15% additional fee by adding the total amounts received from two banquets. (P. Ex. 32.) If there had been bills to the customers showing the 15% payment, as Gui Yang testified, it would have been logical and easier for the bookkeeper simply to copy the 15% figures from those bills, not to make a calculation herself based on the total of the two unenhanced bills. Thus, the Court concludes that no separate bill showing the 15% payment existed.

E. How the Additional Payment Is Treated for Accounting and Tax Purposes

50. The restaurant's payroll register has classified the money collected at banquets and distributed to employees as "tips." (See 2002-2004 Payroll Records.) Similarly, internal financial records from the restaurant labeled the money collected at banquets and distributed by 88 Palace as "tips." (P. Ex. 23, at MIU 88 Palace 00358.) Louis Miu, the restaurant's accountant and designated corporate witness, repeatedly and unambiguously characterized the waiters' share of the 15% payment as tips, describing it as "not a wage . . . . That [payment] becomes gratuity going to the employees" (Tr. 496), and stating that "of the 15 percent service charge that [the restaurant] received, 75 percent was paid over to the employees as tips." (Id. at 514.) When the restaurant computed overtime payments due to the servers, the servers' percentage of the 15% fee was not included. (Tr. 509.)

51. Defendant Gui Yang stated that internal documents used the terms "tips" and "service charge" interchangeably, "due only to confusion on my part, or on the part of other persons, regarding the distinction" between the two, and that "[i]n [his] mind, the word 'tips' serves as a kind of shorthand for 'service charge.'" (Gui Yang Aff. ¶ 7.) This highlights the fact that there was no meaningful distinction between tips and the money defendants argue is a service charge; the restaurant managers did not see a meaningful distinction between "tips" and the money collected at banquets.

52. Once the 75 percent of the additional banquet payment was added to the tip pool, it was distributed in exactly the same manner as tips. It was not distributed on a per hour basis, as wages were. Nor was the employees' share of the 15 percent payment treated as wages for the purposes of overtime calculation.

53. The defendants have never included the amount of the banquet payments that they distribute to the waiters, busboys and captains through the restaurant's tip pool on the employees' W-2 forms as wages, nor deducted federal, state, city, FICA, or disability taxes from that amount. By contrast, at all relevant times, the defendants have deducted federal, state, city, FICA and disability taxes from the waiters', busboys', and captains' hourly wage payments.

54. Louis Miu testified that in tax filings prepared by the restaurant, the money from banquets that was distributed to the waiters, busboys and captains was included in the same category as tips left on the table, rather than in the category for wages. (Tr. 471-73, discussing P. Ex. 22 at 88-000034 (Feng Qin Zheng Tang W-2 form).) Plaintiffs have been required to declare and pay taxes on the amount they receive from the ...


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