Massachusetts Court Holds No Coverage for Withheld Employee Tips

by Traub Lieberman Straus & Shrewsberry LLP
Contact

In its recent decision in Berkshire-Cranwell Limited Partnership v. Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Ins. Co., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93635 (D. Mass. July 6, 2012), the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts had occasion to consider whether claims brought by the insured’s employees for wrongful withholding of tips triggered coverage under general liability and/or employee benefit liability policies.
The insured, Cranwell Resort, is a resort spa in Lenox, Massachusetts. It charged “service fees” at its restaurants and spa, but it was alleged that these service fees were not distributed to the employees that actually performed the services. Cranwell was named as a defendant in two separate class actions lawsuits brought by employees alleging violations of Massachusetts Tips Act and Massachusetts’ Wage Act, as well as causes of action for breach of contract, conversion, and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. For reasons not even clear to the court, Cranwell did not give notice of the suits to its insurers until almost three and a half years after the suits were filed. Cranwell had two potentially responsive policies: both general liability policies with employee benefit liability (“EBL”) extensions. Both insurers denied coverage on the basis that the claims were not covered, and that in any event, Cranwell failed to give timely notice of the suits.
In considering coverage under the policies’ general liability coverage, the court identified the key issue as whether the suits qualified as claims for “property damage,” defined in pertinent part as loss of use of tangible property. The court observed that some courts, such as those in Nevada and Arkansas, have considered cash to constitute tangible property. The court further noted, however, that in each of these cases, it was “conversion of actual paper currency.” For instance, in Capitol Indem. Corp. v. Wright, 341 F.Supp.2d 1152 (D.Nev. 2004), when an employee of a group home instructed a resident with Alzheimers’s disease to withdraw money from an ATM, the court concluded that the converted funds constituted tangible property. Likewise, in Hortica-Florists’ Mut. Ins. Co. v. Pittman Nursery Corp., 2010 WL 749368  (W.D.Ark. Mar 2, 2010), where a company manager required each employee to pay him $1,000 to retain their jobs, the court held that the payments constituted tangible property.
The court noted that the distinction between the facts involving Cranwell and those in Wright or Pittman was that the monies involved in latter cases were “misappropriated as a physical object.” Such was distinguishable from cases involving conversion of “non-currency monies,” such as wages. The court explained this difference:
When the Black and Wechter plaintiffs alleged that their tips, characterized as service fees were wrongfully converted, they were clearly alleging that Plaintiff took their money for its exchange value and not in the form of some physical object or objects. There was, with perhaps an occasional exception, no physical handover of tangible currency from the employees to Plaintiff. Instead, Plaintiff simply retained the service fees, diverting them into its general account. In this circumstance, no “tangible property” was involved, no duty to defend arises, and no coverage adheres.
In reaching this conclusion, the court considered and rejected Cranwell’s argument that in some instances, guests at the resort paid the service fees in cash, and that in some instances, this cash was paid directly to the employees before being diverted to Cranwell’s general account. The court concluded that there was no allegation that the service fee payments were ever “in the hands” of the plaintiff employees. The court further hel that the decisions in Wright and Pittman, relied on by Cranwell, were not controlling on a Massachusetts court, and strongly suggested that their reasoning was improper.
Having determined that the underlying suits did not allege “property damage,” the court considered Cranwell’s argument that the suits triggered its employee benefits liability coverage. The court noted that while Cranwell’s two EBL policies contained slightly different definitions of “employee benefits,” both pertained to “fringe benefits,” such as health insurance or retirement plans. Applying the principle of ejusdem generis, the court concluded that “a reasonable insured would find the list of fringe benefits under the definition of ‘employee benefits’ to be inclusive of only traditional health, welfare and retirement benefits, and exclusive of wages such as cash tips.” 
Finally, while not necessary to the court’s decision in light of its other findings, the court held that Cranwell’s delay in giving notice to its insurers vitiated its right to coverage. During the three and a half year delay, the classes were certified in the two lawsuits, several motions and cross motions for summary judgment were made, and Cranwell had begun settlement discussions with underlying plaintiffs. Under the circumstances, the court concluded that Cranwell’s insurers suffered “substantial prejudice,” as required by Massachusetts law. As the court concluded, “the transit of both lawsuits was all but over before Defendants even learned of them. In such a situation, it would be unfair to expect Defendants to step in at the last minute to shoulder settlement and defense costs without any opportunity to shape the course of litigation.”

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Traub Lieberman Straus & Shrewsberry LLP | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Traub Lieberman Straus & Shrewsberry LLP
Contact
more
less

Traub Lieberman Straus & Shrewsberry LLP on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):
hide

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.

Security

JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.
Feedback? Tell us what you think of the new jdsupra.com!