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Exotic dancer files suit over payment system

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Are exotic dancers classified as employees or independent contractors?

That question has been debated in several West Virginia federal lawsuits, and a recent lawsuit filed in Berkeley County Circuit Court could once again bring up that question.

Man Le Garrett, Krystal McLaughlin and Jane Roe filed the most recent state court lawsuit against TNA Enterprises LLC doing business as Paradise City 2 and managing member Warren Dellinger, alleging they received less than minimum wage and had to pay various fees just to work there.

The dancers filed the suit under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the West Virginia Wage Payment and Collection Act.

In their suit, dancers alleged they were required to pay out of personal tips $35 for each private dance, $30 for each 30-minute Champagne Room dance, $10 for each night shift worked, $10 for each 5-minute private dance, $25 for each 15-minute private dance, a $15 penalty if they arrived late for work and a $100 penalty if they did not come to work without calling in advance.

They said as a result of this fee system, they did not keep all of their tips and made less than minimum wage.

Dancers in the lawsuit are seeking class action certification.

There are four other similar West Virginia cases filed by the same attorneys — Martinsburg attorney Garry Geffert and Maryland attorney Gregg C. Greenberg.

The oldest suit was filed in 2011 by Arielle Jordan, or "Queen" and Patrice Ruffin, or "Karma" against Entertainment of the Eastern Panhandle doing business as The Legz Club and Troy W. Erickson.

The exotic dancers had similar allegations, seeking to recover damages under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and the West Virginia Wage Payment and Collection Act.

This suit listed a similar situation where fees were required out of personal tips for things such as private dances, Champagne Room sessions and "shower shows." Their suit also said dancers were required to pay a fee from personal tips to the bartender and disc jockey.

However, in the response to the suit, the club denied the dancers were employees within the meaning of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the state's Wage Payment and Collection Act.

Instead, the club argued they were independent contractors; so, they would not be entitled to receive minimum wage.

The answer also noted that the "entertainers" paid fees to obtain access to venues to present their erotic dance performances. They also paid for the use of the dressing facilities, music by live disc jockeys and other amenities such as rooms for the private dances and champagne for the Champagne Room dances.

The answer also argued entertainers could charge patrons at any rate providing it was above the minimum rate.

The minimum rates were listed as a tableside dance is $30, the entertainer agrees to pay $10 to the club; minimum fee for shower dance is $100, entertainer pays $30 to club; minimum fee for champagne dance is $150, entertainer agrees to pay $75 to club, which reimburses club for bottle of champagne provided to patron during the dance,

They also said dancers expressed no intention to be subject to rights of either act.

Attorneys said this case has reached a tentative settlement, which the court still must approve.

Another case was filed in January 2012 by Tammy M. Blake, or "Brooke," against the Berkeley County club Taboo Gentlemen's Club LLC and Casey McGee.

Once again, the allegations focused on paying fees out of personal tips for private dances and other services. She also alleged she was subjected to penalties should she not show up to work and call in advance.

Taboo presented the argument that dancers were not employees but independent contractors and entered into agreements that established that business relationship.

The last two separate federal lawsuits were similar. They were filed by Leann Nesselrodte against Divas and Underground Casino and Lounge LLC, where Nesselrodte said she also was paid less than minimum wage because of the fee system.

The last three cases have settled and both attorneys noted the terms of these settlements are confidential.

But it's not just West Virginia with these types of lawsuits.

"It seems to be an industry problem," Greenberg said. "The problem is clubs are charging employees to come to work. It's devastating when you think about it … you pay for the privilege of coming to work."

Greenberg argued dancers are not independent contractors and should therefore be paid minimum wage. Greenberg asserts that sometimes, dancers are receiving negative money per hour.

"I've handled 30 independent cases in Maryland and West Virginia. … It's popping up all over the country and it has been for the past decade," Greenberg said. "I have no idea what the motivation is. … Just because you call them independent contractors doesn't mean they are. … Overwhelmingly, exotic dancers are found to be employees and the obligation is to be paid minimum wage."