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Servers' class action over pooled tip system at Tavern at the Park settled for $500K; attorneys collect $160K

By Jonathan Bilyk | May 15, 2014

The owners of a popular downtown Chicago restaurant facing a class action suit brought against them by former servers, who claim management improperly pooled and distributed their tips to other workers in violation of state and federal law, have settled the case.

In January, a federal judge in Chicago signed off on the settlement agreement between Mask Restaurants LLC, which operates "Tavern at the Park" on Randolph Street near Millennium Park, and a class of plaintiffs made up of former servers who worked at the restaurant from 2010-2014, led by James Frebes, Michael Argeropoulos and Marc Hochmuth.

According to the order issued by U.S. District Judge Marvin Aspen, the plaintiffs were scheduled to receive $502,000 under the settlement deal, while counsel for the plaintiffs were scheduled to receive $160,000 in fees and costs.

Represented by attorneys James B. Zouras, Ryan F. Stephan and Andrew C. Ficzko of the firm of Stephan Zouras LLP in Chicago, the plaintiffs sued Mask and Tavern at the Park in 2013.

The suit also named as defendants business partners Peter de Castro Jr. and Donny de Castro, who together own and operate Mask Restaurants.

The serves alleged Mask, for at least the previous three years, engaged in the practice of pooling the tips of all servers, bartenders and busers working at Tavern at the Park. The owners, the suit states, would then distribute the tips to the various employees who had worked a particular shift or particular day.

While the plaintiffs acknowledge that creating such tipping pools is not illegal, they assert Tavern at the Park’s management included workers employed as food runners in the pooled tip distribution. Those food runners, according to the suit, were not eligible to receive the tips because they “did not regularly receive tips” and “performed all their duties in the kitchen and had no customer interaction."

The plaintiffs contended the net effect of the practice deprived the servers, bartenders and bussers of tips that were rightfully theirs, and violated both the Illinois Minimum Wage Law and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

They asked the court to award them damages, including “all regular pay owed,” plus 2-percent interest per month from the date such pay was owed.

They said they believed a group of at least 100 other workers or more may have been similarly harmed by the practices they  accused the restaurant owners of engaging in.

To identify all those other potential class members, the plaintiffs asked the court to order the restaurant owners to turn over certain payroll records.

Class certification was awarded in May 2014, over the objections of the restaurant owners who had argued the potential class members’ different jobs, titles and workplace responsibilities made them too dissimilar to certify as a class.

Among other claims, the defendants further argued the suit should be limited to the previous two years, not three as requested by plaintiffs, and the opt-in period for potential new plaintiffs to join the action should be 45 days, not the 60-day period sought by the plaintiffs.

Aspen found the tipped employees, regardless of their various job titles, suffered the same potential damages and were similar enough to let the suit to move forward as a class action.

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