The $86 million trial award against Starbucks for violation of California Labor Code provisions on tips was overturned by a California appellate court (Chau v. Starbucks). The case was initiated by Jou Chau who was a former Starbucks barista. He brought a class action against Starbucks alleging that the company’s policy permitting shift supervisors to share in tips that customers place in a collective tip box violated Labor Code section 351 and California Unfair Competition Law. The trial court certified a class action of current and former baristas and held a bench trial, in which it held Starbucks was liable for $86 million.

The appellate court, in overturning the trial court’s award, succinctly summarized the error it found the trial court made:

The applicable statutes do not prohibit Starbucks from permitting shift supervisors to share in the proceeds placed in collective tip boxes. The court’s ruling was improperly based on a line of decisions that concerns an employer’s authority to mandate that a tip given to an individual service employee must be shared with other employees. The policy challenged here presents the flip side of this mandatory tip-pooling practice. It concerns an employer’s authority to require equitable allocation of tips placed in a collective tip box for those employees providing service to the customer. There is no decisional or statutory authority prohibiting an employer from allowing a service employee to keep a portion of the collective tip, in proportion to the amount of hours worked, merely because the employee also has limited supervisory duties.

At issue in this case is the interpretation of Labor Code section 351, which states: "No employer or agent shall collect, take, or receive any gratuity or a part thereof that is paid, given to, or left for an employee by a patron . . . . Every gratuity is hereby declared to be the sole property of the employee or employees to whom it was paid, given, or left for." Plaintiff here argued that the shift supervisors who participated in sharing the tips left in the tip jar were “agents” of Starbucks, and therefore are prohibited from sharing in the tips.

The court explained the manner in which Starbucks collects and shares the tips left in the tip jars:

Because of the team-service approach, a collective tip box is provided for those customers who choose to tip the group of employees, rather than an individual. Collective tipping is the norm with occasional instances of individual tipping. Starbucks has a highly detailed written policy for collecting, storing, and distributing these collective tips. This policy requires each store to have a "standard 4" x 4" plexi cube container for tips." The container must be placed near each cash register, and should not have any signs on it. At the end of each day, an employee must store the tips under numerous rules that ensure the security of the tip funds.
Starbucks mandates that the only employees eligible to share in the weekly collective tips are "all baristas and shift supervisors who worked that week." Store managers and assistant managers are prohibited from receiving any portion of these tips. Additionally, only baristas and shift supervisors are eligible to count and distribute the tips. To calculate the weekly tip distribution, the selected counting employee must: (1) determine the total monetary amount from the tip container; (2) calculate the total number of hours worked by all baristas and shift supervisors in the particular store; (3) divide the total amount of hours by the store’s total earned tips for the week to obtain the tip hourly rate; (4) multiply each of the barista and shift supervisor hours by the tip hourly rate to determine each employee’s tip income; and (5) place each employee’s tip income in a sealed envelope, label the envelope with the employee’s name, and store the envelope in the safe until the employee is available to take possession of it.

The court recognized that if a customer left a tip for a particular employee, then the employee was entitled to keep that tip and was not required to place the tip in the collective tip jar.

Plaintiff argued that because the shift supervisors were considered Starbucks’ agent under Labor Code section 350, they cannot participate in the sharing of the tips even if they serviced customers who left tips in the communal tip jar.

The court found that even if the shift supervisors meet the definition of agent under section 350, Labor code section 351 does not prohibit Starbucks from allowing shift supervisors from sharing in tips that were left for baristas and for the shift supervisors. The court explained:

Because—as plaintiffs concede—section 351 does not prohibit a shift supervisor from keeping gratuities given to him or her for his or her customer services, there is no logical basis for concluding that section 351 prohibits an employer from allowing the shift supervisor to retain his or her portion of a collective tip that was intended for the entire team of service employees, including the shift supervisor. In this situation, the shift supervisor keeps only his or her earned portion of the gratuity and does not "take" any portion of the tip intended for services by the barista or baristas. If—as is undisputed here—the tips were left in the collective tip boxes for the baristas and shift supervisors, and it was permissible for Starbucks to require an equitable division of the tips according to the number of hours worked by each employee, it is not a violation of section 351 for the employer to maintain a policy ensuring those service employees benefit from a portion of those tips. Because a shift supervisor performs virtually the same service work as a barista and the employees work as a "team," Starbucks did not violate section 351 by requiring an equitable distribution of tips specifically left in a collective tip box for all of these employees.

Mandatory Tip Pooling vs. Tip Apportionment

The court explained there is a difference between mandatory tip pooling and tip apportionment:

[T[he legal principles prohibiting an employer from requiring an employee to share his or her personal tip with the employer’s agent ("mandatory tip pooling") do not logically apply to an employer policy requiring equitable apportionment of the proceeds in a collective tip box ("tip apportionment").

The court explained that under previous case law “an employer violates section 351 if it requires an employee to give up any part of his or her tip for the benefit of the employer’s agent.” However, the court set forth that the case here does not involve tip pooling, but rather tip apportionment. Starbucks did not require its baristas to give their tips to the shift supervisors. The policy at issue in this case was how employees divide tips left for them in a collective tip jar. The court held that Starbucks’ policy appropriately distributes the tips as close as possible to the intent of the customers who leave a tip in the jar, which does not violate the Labor Code.

Employers concerned about this issue should approach with caution. The court made it very clear that the case was decided on facts specific to Starbucks the policies specific to this case.