ATLANTA — One of Atlanta’s most successful restauranteurs and entrepreneurs, Aisha “Pinky” Cole, has been sued in federal court by a now-former employee who accuses Cole of taking portions of employees’ tips, and also of paying them less than minimum wage. Court records show she's denying the claims in the lawsuit.
The allegations against Cole attempt to portray a side of her that is the opposite of everything the public has come to know—the Pinky Cole who made millions creating a popular vegan brand, and made her reputation transforming her brand into generous philanthropy.
“I’m helping people,” Cole said in June 2022, “offering people a helping hand and giving them the opportunity to be the best version of themselves.”
The lawsuit against Cole was filed in federal court in Atlanta on Nov. 11. On Wednesday, two months to the day after the lawsuit was filed, Cole’s attorneys will file their formal response to the allegations.
The woman who is suing Cole, Morgan Georgia, says in the lawsuit that she worked for Cole at Bar Vegan in Atlanta's Ponce City Market for two and a half years; she is also suing Cole’s two co-owners, Aaron Mattison and Jason Crane, as well as the business itself.
Two other current or former employees, Amber Abney and Kandus LeBlanc, have joined the lawsuit against Bar Vegan and its owners. "Other servers and bartenders, who are similarly situated to Named Plaintiff, are interested in joining this collective action," according to the lawsuit.
Georgia accuses the three owners of demanding 25% of the employees’ tips, while also paying them below minimum wage, and telling the employees, according to the lawsuit, “25% of the tips go to the house. That is our policy. If you don’t like it, find another place to work.”
Can an employer take any portion of an employees’ tips?
“No, absolutely not,” said Atlanta attorney Ed Buckley on Tuesday, “and that is a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. And there are civil penalties when an employer does something like that.”
Buckley, who is not associated with the lawsuit, said that according to federal law, an employer must pay at least minimum wage, $7.25 an hour. But the employer is allowed to pay “tip workers” far less, $2.13 an hour, as long as the workers keep 100% of their tips, and as long as the tips make up that difference of $5.12 an hour.
Buckley said that under the law, any amount the employee makes in tips above $7.25 an hour also belongs to the employee, and employers cannot take any portion of it.
Karen Bremer, the CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association, told 11Alive News that tipped workers make, on average, the equivalent of $27 an hour.
The lawsuit does not say how much money Georgia or other employees were making in tips, or how much money the business owners would have been collecting by keeping 25% of the tips.
The lawsuit says simply that Cole and her co-owners paid employees $2.13 an hour, but kept a portion of the employees’ tips, "for the benefit of Defendants..." which Buckley said would violate the law.
According to the lawsuit, "While Defendants can require Plaintiffs to give a portion of their tips to other tipped employees as part of a valid tip-pooling arrangement, Defendants cannot require Plaintiffs to give any portion of their tips to non-tipped employees and Defendants cannot simply retain the tips... for operational expenses and other improper and unlawful purposes under the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act)."
According to the lawsuit, "Bar Vegan's gross annual sales and business done for each of the three years preceding the filing of this Complaint exceeds $500,000."
Buckley said it would be relatively easy to prove, if it has been happening—he has handled similar cases against employers.
“And they do things because they think they can get away with it,” Buckley said, “or they do things because they are intimidating the employees and they think that the employees will stay intimidated... It actually happens more than it’s reported.”
Georgia says in her lawsuit that she and other employees "regularly questioned Defendants during their shifts, at staff meetings and when receiving their paychecks about the significant percentage of their tips that Defendants retained. At times, Defendants told Plaintiffs that retained tips were provided to bar backs at Bar Vegan, but the bar backs did not receive the retained tips."
Pinky Cole and her attorney declined to comment.
On Wednesday, the defendants filed an 18-page response to the lawsuit in court outlining claims they deny in the lawsuit.
"Named Plaintiff and the others allegedly similarly situated failed to mitigate any claimed damages (which are expressly denied) by complying with the Bar Vegan’s policies and internal procedures," the court filing reads. "Stated another way, any purported damages that were suffered were avoidable consequences resulting from the misconduct of Plaintiffs and members of the putative FLSA collective class.”
Georgia is demanding the unpaid wages and tips that she says Cole and her co-owners kept from her and other employees for the past three years. The defendants are asking the court to dismiss the complaint with prejudice, documents show.
You can read the full document below: