'Top Chef' Judge, Other Elite New York Restaurateurs Beat Tipping Conspiracy Lawsuit

Paying an extra $5 for a fried chicken sandwich is enough to show standing to sue for damages, but several of New York's top restaurateurs still evaded a lawsuit alleging they conspired to drive up prices by ending tipping at their businesses.
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Tom Colicchio

Top Chef judge Thomas Colicchio and a host of other top New York City restaurateurs have beaten a lawsuit from a man who says they're surreptitiously working together to drive up restaurant prices. 

A Minnesota man named Timothy Brown in October 2017 sued more than a dozen New York and California restaurateurs, including Colicchio, David Chang, Danny Meyer, Andrew Tarlow, Will Guidara and Daniel Humm. Brown claims they're conspiring to fix prices by eliminating the practice of tipping, which results in customers paying more. Specifically, Brown claims a server at Reynard in Brooklyn, which Tarlow used to own part of, told him the price of his fried chicken sandwich increased from $16 to $21 after the restaurant eliminated tips, and that Comal and Camino, which are also being sued, added a 20 percent service charge instead of letting customers choose the amount of their tip.

The defendants asked the court to flambe the claims, arguing Brown lacked standing to sue, and the New York defendants argued that the California federal court lacked jurisdiction.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White did find that paying $5 more for a chicken sandwich than he would have absent the alleged conspiracy is enough to show standing to seek damages. But, because he lives in Minnesota and has no plans to dine at any of the defendant restaurants in the near future, White found he couldn't meet the standard of a "real and immediate threat of repeated injury" required to establish standing for injunctive relief.

White wasn't swayed by Brown's various legal arguments for why a California court should exercise jurisdiction over New York companies and individuals and dismissed all claims against the New York-based defendants.  

With regard to the California defendants, White found Brown hasn't adequately explained which prices he alleges are fixed, the menu prices or the service charge. The judge is giving Brown one more shot at amending his claims.

"It is not clear to the Court how Brown will be able to allege a plausible price fixing conspiracy that consists of just four restaurants, given the number of restaurants in the Bay Area," writes White. "However, because the Court cannot say it would be futile, it will grant Brown a final opportunity to amend the complaint solely against the California Defendants."