01/18/2012 03:00 pm ET

Applebee's Tipping Case To Go To Trial

Applebee's may be, as its motto alleges, a place for "Eatin' good in the neighborhood." But if the legal arguments brought forth by a group of restaurant employees are to be believed, it's not a place that pays well in the neighborhood. A long-running lawsuit involving an alleged minimum wage law infraction at Applebee's is set to go to trial this September at the U.S. District Court of Western Missouri.

Applebee's lawyers had hoped to prevent a trial by appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. But on Tuesday, the nation's highest court refused to stop the case, which was brought forward by 5,500 employees of the Kansas City-based chain, from going forward.

The employees claim that Applebee's breached the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by paying non-waiter workers $2.13 an hour, the minimum wage for workers, instead of the $7.50 they were due.

The suit defines "non-waiter workers" as those who spent more than 20% of their time engaged in tasks other than serving customers -- washing dishes, cleaning up the restaurant, and so forth. They point to a handbook published by the Labor Department that uses this definition of non-waiter workers. The employees argue that the amount of time they spent completing these side tasks made them eligible for the same hourly wage that they would be entitled to if they were in a job that was not tipped at all. Applebee's maintains that such tasks are central to the job requirements for waiters, always tacitly accounted for in the calculation of waiters' wages.

The resolution of the dispute apparently turns on the word "engaged." The FLSA states that workers are allowed to be payed $2.13 an hour for jobs in which they are "engaged" with work that leads to tips in excess of $30 a month. The waiters and bartenders suing the restaurant claim that the side work they "engaged with" did not lead to any kind of tip, so they should be compensated above and beyond the tip-wage for that work.

The Applebee's case is one of many high-profile tipping cases of the past few years. Others have involved parties as diverse as celebrity chef Mario Batali, casino magnate Steve Wynn and the New York Yankees.