CANTON, Mass – Just when the 2021 Massachusetts golf season seemed to be functioning on full throttle with public golf course tee sheets pushing out over 200 players per day, and private clubs requiring a waiting list to join, comes chilling news from, of all places, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
In a decision dated August 23, 2021, the highest court in the Commonwealth has ruled that Blue Hill Country Club, a private 27-hole property owned by Concert Golf Partners with about 500 members, has been found guilty of shortchanging payment of tips income to its wait staff. The club was found to have violated a longtime Massachusetts law known as the “Tips Act.”
The decision will result in a significant payment from the club to its workers, according to Attorney Paul Holtzman, Co-Managing Partner of Krokidas & Bluestein LLP, who was among the attorneys representing the workers in Hovagimian, et al. v. Concert Blue Hill, LLC, et al. (SJC-13039). He noted the SJC decision has potential to rock the world of private golf club practices.
For every event held at the club, including weddings, Bar-Mitzvah’s, business conferences, tournaments and outings, Blue Hill CC has added a ten-percent gratuity charge for the wait staff and a ten-percent service charge that goes directly to the club.
However, the wait staff hired Attorney Paul Holtzman, a specialist in employment law, and sued the club saying they should get that additional ten-percent. The SJC voted 5-1 in favor of the plaintiffs, with Judge Serge Georges writing and Judge Scott Kafker dissenting.
The defendants named in the SJC decision are Peter Nanula,(CEO – Concert Golf Partners) Gregg Deger, Bryan Elliott, Francisco Ventura, and Tom Gibson who acted as managerial staff for Blue Hill Country Club at various times during the period at issue in the complaint. The Civil action was filed in the Superior Court on May 7, 2018.
Concert Golf Partners bought Blue Hill CC in 2015, after the club was struggling with about $5 million of longstanding debt. At the time, CEO Peter Nanula said adding Blue Hill has the potential to diversify his company’s portfolio.
″Concert Golf helps member-owned upscale private clubs to recapitalize, and we’re in a much better position to help them accomplish their goals,” Nanula said in an interview with the Patriot Ledger. “The sky is the limit at Blue Hill. It’s a major golf course and a great club.”
The SJC decision could have wide-ranging ramifications on other private clubs, hotels and spas in Massachusetts that have engaged in the practice of clipping their help of hard-earned income, as Blue Hill CC has done. Also, of note, Holtzman said all the defendants are personally liable even though most no longer work at the club.
“This Supreme Judicial Court decision is important confirmation that Massachusetts law provides clear protection against workers having their tips taken from them,” said Holtzman in a telephone interview August 24. “This is a reaffirmation of the fundamental principle that workers are entitled to the proceeds from all service charges on events they’ve worked, including the frontline workers who’ve been continuing to deliver service throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“It’s gratifying that this victory means these workers will now receive not only their back wages and tips, but also the mandatory treble damages designed to deter future violations. It is also an important reminder of the broad scope of the Tips Act protecting workers at hotels, spas, hair and nail salons, restaurants, catering halls and country clubs – anyone in an occupation in which employees customarily receive tips.”
Blue Hill CC and Concert Golf Partners are now on the hook to pay ten-percent on hundreds of old invoices to longtime employee and lead plaintiff Khris Hovagimian and other wait staff. The law requires treble damages be paid to all plaintiffs. More importantly, this gets expensive and hits Blue Hill CC and Concert Golf Partners in the wallet with tens and thousands of dollars to be paid in legal fees to the plaintiffs lawyer, as well as payments to their own legal team.
“Concert Golf Partners prides itself on taking good care of our employees, and as such, we have very generous staff compensation programs, including our approach to service charges and tipping, at all of our clubs,” said Concert Golf Partners CEO Peter Nanula, in an email statement to New England.Golf.
“We respect the decision of the courts in Massachusetts but disagree with the judgment in question, which overturns the two other courts’ judgments. We acted in the best interest of our employees, as well as adhering to the laws of the state. In the coming days, we will determine our next course of action in this matter.”
There is no happy ending here for Blue Hill CC members (that includes me) and Concert Golf Partners.
(Link to 19-page SJC decision)
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated with CONCERT GOLF PARTNERS’ released statement.