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Baltimore tavern owner settles with former employees in tip-pooling case

South Baltimore bar owner Jason Zink has agreed to pay $115,000 to settle litigation brought by five of his former employees, according to settlement papers filed Tuesday in federal court.

The fact of a pretrial resolution was known a month and a half ago when U.S. District Court Judge Richard D. Bennett dismissed the tip-pooling case by form order, but the details only became public this week when the attorneys submitted the deal for judicial approval in keeping with the Federal Labor Standards Act.

Judge Bennett’s signature would bring to a close the 2-year-old litigation that made waves in March when the judge ruled Zink could not participate in a tip pool with his fellow bartenders, apparently common practice at small bars in Baltimore and beyond.

The lion’s share of the proposed payout would go to the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Philip B. Zipin. The Silver Spring attorney would receive $100,000 over the next four years by way of 50 monthly installments of $2,000, starting in September. (A previous version filed Monday provided for 60 payments of $2,000, but that mistake was corrected by late afternoon.)

Zipin said he realizes the ratio of fees to recovery might contribute to a popular perception of “greedy lawyers,” but he said he would “make no apologies” for what he has earned. He justified his pay by pointing out that Zink’s rejection of early settlement offers necessitated expensive motions practice and that the FLSA provides for reasonable fees, which often surpass what the litigant worker gets.

“I cut my fees,” Zipin said. “If we had gone to trial, the judge would have awarded that and more. It is what it is.”

Bennett still must approve the fees, Zipin noted — “It’s not like we’re going to sneak it by him” — and if he doesn’t, the parties will have to renegotiate.

The plaintiffs, who once worked at Zink’s Don’t Know or No Idea taverns in Federal Hill, will collectively receive $15,000.18, according to the settlement agreement.

The three tip-pooling plaintiffs — Eric Gilbert, Tara Gionfriddo and Aaron Zetzer — are due the least, a total of $5,243. Bartender Brian Emar, who alleged he was not paid at all, is owed the most money of the plaintiffs — $6,863 — and sous chef Astrid Garrison, whose claims centered on overtime pay, is scheduled to receive $2,894.

At the time of Bennett’s March decision, which was the first to address the issue in Maryland’s federal appellate circuit, Zipin claimed the tip-pooling plaintiffs were owed $10,000, Garrison was owed about the same, and Emar was out more than $25,000.

The five will receive checks for two-thirds of their awards upon Bennett’s approval of the settlement, with the final installment due Aug. 1.

Zink, who has spoken freely in the past, declined to comment on the resolution of the case or on since-removed Facebook postings that suggested he had all but sold one of the bars. He referred questions to his attorney, Howard B. Hoffman, who refused to say much more.

“What we’ve attempted to craft here is a settlement that allows Jason to continue to operate,” the Rockville attorney said, “and resolve these matters in a mutually satisfactory manner.”

Zipin also said he knew nothing of Zink’s plans to sell and simply wished the bar owner “continued success.”

“He can do whatever he wants. It’s up to him,” Zipin said. “But I don’t anticipate any problems in terms of him adhering to the agreement.”