Workers Sue Cipriani Over Pay

A. G. Sulzberger
December 22, 2009

The Cipriani family, which owns a string of high society restaurants that have been dogged in recent years with legal trouble, is heading to court again, this time over charges of underpaying contract workers.

A group of current and former employees for a company that provides staffing for Cipriani events filed a lawsuit on Monday that says Cipriani failed to pass along service charges to employees, as is required under state labor law. The lawsuit alleges a number of other labor violations, including paying the workers for fewer hours than were actually worked.

Anthony Whitehurst, who has staffed celebrity-studded Cipriani events for three years and is one of five plaintiffs, said that he was surprised and upset when he learned that Cipriani was charging a substantial service charge of more than 20 percent for birthday parties, weddings and other events it holds while passing none of that money to the waiters and waitresses. “We never received anything,” he said.

It is not the first time that Cipriani has faced such a lawsuit. In 2003, the New York Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the company when it concluded that the people who staffed Cipriani events were “independent contractors and not employees.”

However, Justin M. Swartz, who is representing the employees in the current lawsuit, said that the practice of contracting with staffing companies that exclusively staffed Cipriani events was a ploy to avoid liability. “Cipriani’s high-profile customers, whether they are wealthy individuals celebrating birthdays or bar mitzvahs or big corporations celebrating profitable years would probably be outraged if they knew that the service charges Cipriani’s is tacking onto their already substantial bills are also going into the companies pockets,” Mr. Swartz said.

The lawsuit comes after several troubled years for the company, which recently left its highest-profile location, the Rainbow Room, after a high-profile rent dispute. In 2007, Arrigo Cipriani pleaded guilty to a felony charge and his son, Giuseppe Cipriani, who serves as the company’s chief executive and was recently reported to have returned to New York from Italy, pleaded quilty to a misdemeanor, and the company agreed to pay $10 million in restitution and penalties to settle a tax-evasion case. In previous years they had been forced to settle allegations of sex discrimination and other labor violations.