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Tip income can’t necessarily be garnished in New Jersey

I have to admit, I picked this case for this post mainly because of its cool name, Big M, Inc. t/a Annie Sez v. Texas Roadhouse Holding, LLC. But it also has something interesting to say about debt collection.

The New Jersey Supreme Court decided Big M on July 16, 2010. The issue in the case was whether tips and gratuities are subject to garnishment. As you may recall, a garnishment can happen when a debt collector who has a judgment against you gets a court order to take part of your pay to satisfy the judgment.

Big M involved a waitress working for Texas Roadhouse Holding, LLC whose wages were being garnished. When her creditor, Big M, got a check for only $4.21 from its $672 wage garnishment, it sued her employer. In the course of deciding the case, the trial court judge determined that tips placed on credit cards are garnishable, but cash tips are not. Then the New Jersey Supreme Court considered the case on appeal.

Looking at both New Jersey law and the Federal Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA), the court did not find any law directly speaking to the issue of whether tips were subject to garnishment. So it examined an opinion letter and field operations handbook from the Department of Labor, which enforces the CCPA, and found the opinion that tips, whether paid in cash or charged, are not subject to garnishment. Although the New Jersey Supreme Court is not required to follow a Department of Labor opinion, the court chose to give the opinion consideration and deference.

Big M, the creditor, argued that all tips should be subject to garnishment because they are taxable income for state and federal tax purposes. The court did not find this argument persuasive because the process of counting and recording tip income and reporting it for tax purposes does not allow the employer to exercise enough control over tip income to make it garnishable. The whole idea behind wage garnishment is to capture the income while it is still in the employer’s hands, before it gets paid to the employee.

The court held that the amount of control an employer exercises over tip income determines whether those tips are subject to wage garnishment. If the employer pools all the tips and then divides the pooled amount amongst the employees, then tip income could be garnished. But if the tips are generally paid directly to the employee, even if the tips are charged on a credit card, they are not subject to garnishment.

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