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Former Block dancer files federal wage suit

An exotic dancer who used to work at a Baltimore night club is suing to recover unpaid wages she says her former employer owes her.

Norma Jean’s required a former dancer to give back as much as $80 a night out of her tips, according to the lawsuit filed Friday.

Unique S. Butler, whose stage name is Dior, filed suit Friday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore seeking $100,000 in compensatory damages against Norma Jean’s and its owner, PP&G Inc. She alleges that she was required to pay $45 of her tips to the club each night and an additional $20 if she was late for her shift for nearly five years ending last June, in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Maryland Wage Payment and Wage Collection Law.

Butler, who lives in Owings Mills, said she was completely dependent on the tips she received from customers, but was forced to pay the DJ $10 to $15 per night out of her tips for the right to work at the club on Custom House Avenue, a side street off the Block.

Her lawyer, Jimmy A. Bell of the Law Office of Jimmy A. Bell P.C. in Oxon Hill, said Friday that “very few” clubs in the area follow the law.

“It’s a huge problem, and now a lot of the dancers are fighting back and suing for their rights,” Bell said.

The club did not respond to an email and phone call requesting comment.

Gregg C. Greenberg, an attorney who is not involved in the lawsuit but has represented plaintiffs in similar cases, said Friday that the exotic dance-club industry has been classifying dancers as independent contractors instead of employees. That way, Greenberg said, the club does not have to pay the dancers minimum wage.

“It’s a type of payroll fraud,” said Greenberg, an attorney at Zipin Law Firm LLC in Silver Spring.

Butler’s complaint cites to the court’s February 2005 decision in Latoya Francis v. Ronald Hunt. In that case, also from the U.S. District Court in Maryland, Judge Roger W. Titus found that, as a matter of law, exotic dancers are employees as that term is used under relevant Maryland and District of Columbia statutes.

“This case is no different,” Bell wrote.

In addition, the complaint specifically says Butler was an employee, not an independent contractor.

Regarding the key distinction between the two categories, control over the work, Butler said she was required to entertain customers “according to means and methods prescribed by” management and managers kept records of the lap dances she performed on each shift.

Nor did the club require dancers to have any particular level of skill, another hallmark of an independent contractor, the complaint says. Butler alleges that Norma Jean’s hired and fired dancers and determined the hours they worked based solely on whether they “looked good” rather than individual performance experience or talent.

“Many of the dancers who have been hired by [Norma Jean’s] have never danced at a club before, so they had zero experience in exotic dancing but were still hired based on looks alone and not any skill level,” Butler says in her lawsuit. “[It] did not even require the newly hired [dancers] to have a certificate of completion from a pole dance class.”

The suit also claims the club was negligent in “failing to supervise and train their employee/agent to stop the illegal practice of failing to pay [Butler] … the wages, illegally taking their tips and making her pay fines.”

Bell said he has resolved similar wage issues involving two other Maryland clubs — the Mile High Club in Clinton and Showcase Theater in Beltsville. This is the first lawsuit, however, that he has brought against a Baltimore establishment.