From: Washington Post
By Tim Carmen
A former server at the Bombay Club, the elegant Indian dining room frequented by U.S. presidents and Hollywood celebrities, filed a class-action lawsuit Tuesday asserting that the restaurant and its management company violated local and federal labor laws by not paying him overtime and other wages.
The complaint also alleges that server Nasser Razmyar’s experiences are common to the other dining rooms in the Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, founded by New Delhi native Ashok Bajaj, a frequent James Beard Award semifinalist for outstanding restaurateur. The group oversees operations at such acclaimed restaurants as the Oval Room, Bibiana, 701 and Rasika.
Razmyar’s attorney, Brendan J. Klaproth, says other Knightsbridge servers have expressed interest in joining the suit. The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, claims that “there are more than 50 past and present non-exempt employees of the Knightsbridge restaurants who are similarly” affected.
This is not Razmyar’s first time suing a former employer. In 2013, Razmyar filed a civil complaint in D.C. Superior Court against Clover Cleveland Park LLC and a company trainer for breach of contract and wrongful termination after he was terminated as general manager at a Tortilla Coast location. The suit was “resolved to the satisfaction of all parties,” says Klaproth, who also represented Razmyar in the earlier complaint.
“He has the habit of doing these things,” Bajaj says about Razmyar’s lawsuits. The Knightsbridge founder paints Razmyar as an oft-reprimanded employee who had no interest in resolving his problems without the courts.
Klaproth says his client’s case is not diminished by the earlier lawsuit. “A dispute he had in the past is entirely separate,” Klaproth says. “If you look at the merits of the case, they are strong.”
Restaurateur Ashok Bajaj says controllers found up to $10,000 in unpaid overtime to Bombay Club servers and blamed it on a sloppy manager who was suspended.
The Bombay Club launched Bajaj’s career as a demanding and doting restaurateur; since it opened in 1989, the restaurant, with its air of British colonialism, has hosted some of the most famous people on Earth: former president Bill Clinton, South African leader Nelson Mandela, musician Paul Simon, actor Harrison Ford and others.
But Razmyar’s complaint alleges that the Raj-style deference extended to influential diners ended when it came to the staff. Razmyar alleges that he was always compensated for 80 hours during a two-week pay period, regardless of how many hours he clocked. The lawsuit includes documentation of what Razmyar asserts was such a pay period in late January, when Razymar alleges that time cards indicate he punched the clock for 108.71 hours. He asserts that he was paid, according to a submitted pay stub, for 80 hours.
Razmyar also asserts that the Bombay Club required him and other servers to pool their tips when waiting on tables with 12 or more diners; from that pool of money, he alleges, the servers were expected to pay a 4 percent manager fee based on the total tab of the table. Similarly, the lawsuit alleges that managers improperly deducted a 76-cent “administrative fee” from each server’s daily tips to cover the costs of a software system to track tips.
In theory, managers cannot touch a server’s tips, which the Fair Labor Standards Act deems the “property of the employee,” says Jim Alvarenga, a wage-hour compliance specialist and investigator with the D.C. Department of Employment Services. There are exceptions. Managers, for example, are allowed to deduct up to 3 percent of a server’s tips to cover credit-card processing fees.
Bajaj says that when he heard about Razmyar’s overtime complaint, he asked controllers to review records for all Knightsbridge restaurants.
They found between $9,000 and $10,000 in unpaid overtime to Bombay Club servers, says Bajaj, who pinned the oversight on a sloppy manager. “Everybody who was not paid was paid,” Bajaj says, adding that no other Knightsbridge restaurant had similar problems. What’s more, Bajaj says the two administrative fees that Razmyar singles out are legal: The fee for large tables is billed separately to diners, not pulled from server tips, Bajaj says.
Carlo Zampogna, general counsel for Gratuity Solutions, the company behind the tipping software, says the 76 cents is a fee paid to the Florida-based business, not the Bombay Club. Every server must accept a user agreement, which specifies the fee, before using the software, he says.
In a May 20 letter to Razmyar, Knightsbridge controller Pat Minter included a check for $2,022.77, minus taxes and other withholdings, for what Razmyar says is 602 hours of unpaid overtime, based on a copy of the letter and pay stub obtained by The Washington Post. (The pretax amount totaled $2,563.15.) Cashing the check, Minter wrote, “constitutes an agreement by you to accept this payment as payment in full for any back wages and overtime” as well as a waiver to any future claims under federal and local wage laws.
Razmyar did not cash the check and, instead, initiated the lawsuit, claiming the Bombay Club failed not only to pay all his overtime hours but also to use the correct hourly rate.
Razmyar says he believes the overtime check was based on a rate of 1.5 times the District’s minimum wage for tipped employees, which is $2.77 per hour. But according to Alvarenga of the D.C. Department of Employment Services, the hourly overtime rate for tipped employees must be 1.5 times the full minimum wage, from which the employer then subtracts its “tip allowance” (the difference between the minimum wage and the tipped minimum wage). Under this formula, Razmyar says he should have been paid $7.52 an hour for overtime hours he accrued after July 1, 2014, when the District’s minimum wage increased to $9.50 an hour; overtime accrued prior to that date would be paid at $6.90 an hour.
Even if all of Razmyar’s 602 hours were paid at the lower rate, his check before taxes would have been $4,153.80. But both Bajaj and Bob Singer, assistant controller for the Bombay Club, says the numbers can’t be crunched that simply.
Bajaj says the 602 hours are not overtime hours, but Razmyar’s year-to-date hours before he left the Bombay Club in April. The server’s check of $2,563.15 was actually based on a complex calculation of hours for which he was overpaid and underpaid, combined with overtime projections for weeks when the company’s records were incomplete.
“We did everything by the law,” Bajaj says.
The case is a first for Bajaj in more than 25 years in the hospitality business.
“It’s unfortunate,” Bajaj says. “I own the company. This is not the reputation I have, nor do I want to have.”
A copy of Mr. Razmyar’s lawsuit for unpaid overtime and tip pooling against the Bombay Club can be found here: Bombay Club Lawsuit Complaint