Mendham restaurant settles with workers over tips, back wages

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A Mendham restaurant has settled with workers who allege the owners skimmed their tips and withheld back wages.

While denying any improper behavior, the owners of Sammy’s Steakhouse agreed to pay $190,000 to cover three years of back wages and damages to 26 plaintiffs, along with their legal fees. United States Magistrate Judge Joseph A. Dickson approved the settlement last month.

Owners Samuel, Maryann and Philip Fornaro are grandchildren of Samuel Fornaro, who founded the restaurant–also known as Sammy’s Ye Olde Cider Mill–as a speakeasy in the 1920s.

They were accused of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act in a federal class-action lawsuit brought by employees Jennifer Helmer and Kelly Montes. Helmer was hired as a food server in September 2014, Montes, in February 2017; they no longer work there.

“Although our clients deny any wrongdoing, the matter… was amicably resolved amongst the parties. We are unable to provide further comment,” the Fornaros’ lawyer, Margaret O’Rourke Wood, said on Friday.

In papers filed in U.S. District Court, the plaintiffs claimed that despite grossing more than $500,000 in each of the last four years, the owners “intentionally, willfully and repeatedly” failed to pay employees full minimum wage for all hours worked, and for all “side work” for employees who spent more than 20 percent of their time assigned to non-tipped duties.

The owners also were accused of “willfully misappropriating” and pocketing portions of tips and service charges earned by servers, and of failing to keep accurate records as mandated by law.

In court papers, the Fornaros countered that they should not be considered “employers” under federal law, and that they were entitled to share pooled tips when performing tipped work.

The action represented employees hired since June 2012.  Servers were paid $2.50 an hour, instead of the federal minimum wage of $7.25, with the expectation that tips would make up the difference, the suit states.

Because employees were not informed of their eligibility for these special tip provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, they should have been entitled to the full minimum wage, according to the suit.

Instead of hiring cleaning and kitchen help at the state minimum wage ($8.25 to $8.60 per hour), the owners assigned its $2.50-per-hour tipped staff to perform duties ranging restocking desserts to washing coffeepots and blinds, folding napkins and answering phones, the plaintiffs further asserted.

The owners maintained they were within their legal rights to require side work by the servers.

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