Judgment debtors with non-traditional employment are always a headache to collect from. This includes self-employed people, independent contractors, and people who work for tips.
Here, I’m talking about waiters, valets, and anybody else who may earn a nominal hourly rate, but the bulk of their income comes from tips or gratuities. How do you garnish $5 in cash handed to a valet?
In Tennessee, you can’t. The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently considered the issue of whether tips reported by the Garnishee’s employees are to be included in the calculation of disposable earnings for the purposes of garnishment in determining the withholding under the garnishment statute, Tenn.Code Ann. § 26–2–106.
This case was Erlanger Med. Ctr. v. Strong, 382 S.W.3d 349, 351 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2012). In that case, the judgment debtor was a server at Shoney’s. In deciding whether tips could be garnished, the Court looked at how “wages” was defined in Tenn.Code Ann. § 26–2–102 (which suggested that tips are included), but the Court went on to note that federal law excludes tips from garnishment because tips “do not pass to the employer.”
This makes sense, because how can an employer withhold 25% of funds that it never has control over?
As a result, a judgment debtor whose primary income comes from tips and gratuities (that do not pass through the employer’s hands) may be able to escape garnishment.
But, where the tips are paid via the employer, there’s still a chance that those funds can be captured. Since at least 75% of restaurant transactions are paid via credit card (including payment of tips), there’s a strong argument that such tips could be garnished if the employer disbursed those tips in the form of a paycheck.