Faculty Club Lawsuit Awaits Hearing

A class-action lawsuit alleging that Harvard violated the Massachusetts “tip law” by withholding service charges from employees awaits hearing by a federal judge, who will determine whether the case should be tried in a federal or state court.

The suit, which was filed in September on behalf of the Faculty Club and Loeb House wait staff, moved from the Middlesex County Superior Court to the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts on Oct. 23 at the request of the defendant, Harvard University.

Harvard’s “Notice of Removal” from state court argued that the relationship between the University and its employees was governed by its collective bargaining agreement, and the Labor Management Relations Act transforms the plaintiff’s claims into a federal matter. However, The wait staff argues that since the lawsuit refers to a state law, the case should be tried in a Massachusetts state court.

The complaint, which was originally filed on Sept. 20, stated that patrons of the Faculty Club and Loeb House pay a surcharge that “appears to patrons and guests to be a service charge that is added to food and beverage bills in lieu of a gratuity.” The University tells guests not to tip otherwise, but, according to the complaint, Harvard keeps the service charge for its own operating expenses.

Only days before the complaint was filed, the Harvard Club of Boston, an entity distinct from the University, settled a “tip law” suit with its wait staff for $4 million.

The wait staff’s attorney, Shannon E. Liss-Riordan ’90, who also represented the Harvard Club workers in their suit, said that she had filed a motion for the case to be returned to state court.“This has nothing to do with the collective bargaining agreement,” she said. “We’re suing under state wage laws.”

She said she thought it insensible for workers not to receive surcharges because their contract does not mention what a state law does. “It’s kind of crazy to say that wait staff employees are in worse shape because they’re members of a union than if they weren’t,” Liss-Riordan said.

In an emailed statement, University spokesperson Kevin Galvin wrote that the purpose of the surcharge was clear to employees and customers, and that while the Faculty Club and Loeb House do not pay their workers with tips, their hourly wage is set by a contract negotiated with the staff’s union, UNITE HERE! Local 26.

These arguments also appeared in the University’s answer to the complaint, along with 16 affirmative defenses.

Liss-Riordan said that she did not know when the hearing to decide the case’s placement would take place, but that it would likely happen in the next few months.

—Staff writer Samuel Y. Weinstock can be reached at sweinstock@college.harvard.edu.

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