Skycaps’ Claim for Tips under FLSA Grounded by Eleventh Circuit

In what appears to be the first such case to reach a federal appeals court, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (the federal appeals court for the federal district courts of Georgia, Florida and Alabama) recently affirmed a decision by a Miami federal district court, which held that the airlines’ practice of charging baggage handling fees for curbside check-in did not unlawfully deprive the skycaps of their tips. Pellon v. Business Representation International, Inc.

In the case, 53 skycaps had brought a collective action under the FLSA against Business Representation International, Inc., the baggage handling contractor for American Airlines at Miami International Airport, alleging that they had been deprived of millions of dollars in unpaid tips as a result of the baggage handling fees imposed by American.

The court rejected the plaintiffs’ contention that the bag fee charged by American reduced their tips and thereby violated FLSA’s requirement that tipped employees are entitled to retain all of their tips and need not share them with their employer. The court concluded that the bag fee was not a tip because it was a mandatory charge imposed by American and thus not given at the customer’s discretion nor kept by the skycaps.

In a similar lawsuit filed in Massachusetts, a group of nine American Airlines skycaps complaining about the same bag fee practice obtained a judgment of $325,000 against American. However, that case was decided under Massachusetts state law, which is much more employee-friendly on this issue than the FLSA. In any event, in July, the court ordered a retrial of the case.

There a number of similar skycap cases pending throughout the country but, at least under the FLSA, the employees’ likelihood of success in these cases does not look promising.