Strippers Sue Over Alleged Unpaid Tips and Wages

Three Valley strip clubs are being sued by exotic dancers with the help of a Texas law firm over alleged unpaid tips and wages.

The various plaintiffs in the cases are being represented by Kennedy Hodges LLP of Houston, which is engaged in dozens of similar cases across the United States.

Dancer Merry Mears filed suit this week in federal court against the Great Alaskan Bush Company and its owner, Damian Hartze. Last month, Mears, Shannon Starr and Deynonna Wallace sued the Bliss Show Club and its owner, Anthony Dellheim. Last year, Allyson Kesley launched a suit against Christie's Cabaret clubs, which has locations in Tempe, Phoenix, Glendale, and in other states.

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Lawyer David Hodges tells New Times that if the clubs followed federal labor law, their dancers would make more money.

Under the current system at the targeted clubs, dancers work as independent contractors, not employees, he explains. They pay a sliding house fee for the "privilege" of dancing at the clubs, and must pool their tips to be split among non-dancing club employees.

As the lawsuits relate, the dancers have to adhere to a number of rules that makes them seem more like employees: They "hired/fired, issued pay, supervised, directed, disciplined, scheduled and performed all other duties generally associated with that of an employer with regard to the dancers. In addition, Defendants instructed the dancers about when, where, and how they were to perform their work."

It's a "misnomer" that the strippers make big bucks on tips for table dances and stage work, Hodges says. While some of the top women can earn a lot, most don't -- and some even end up owing money when they don't make enough in tips during a night to cover their house fee, he says.

Hodges' firm and the strippers are suing to make the strippers official employees. Their new system would be similar to that of restaurant wait staff, who typically earn a sub-minimum salary (Arizona allows as low as $3 an hour for tipped employees) while pooling tips among their fellow workers. If no customers come in, the staff is still guaranteed to make at least minimum wage, plus time-and-a-half for any overtime worked.

Rex Brasher, the Memphis-based attorney representing Christie's Cabaret clubs, says that the Hodges law firm "is doing these ladies a great disservice."

Exotic dancers often make several thousand dollars in a night and they've "historically" preferred to remain independent contractors.

"Frankly, a lot of them, they don't pay taxes," Brasher says. Some of the dancers named as plaintiffs in these cases are continuing to work as contractors for other strip clubs "but don't want to rock the boat" at those places.

If the dancers' lawsuits are successful, "they'll be making a helluva lot less money," Brasher maintains.

Hodges declined to allow his clients to be interviewed.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.