By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO Fla. (Reuters) - A U.S. judge has ruled that food servers and bartenders employed by Darden Restaurants Inc, which owns chains including Olive Garden, the Capital Grille and LongHorn Steakhouse, cannot sue the company as a group for alleged wage violations.
U.S. District Judge William Dimitrouleas in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, signed an order early this week decertifying the class, which could have numbered as many as 218,000 people, according to court records.
Each server can instead file an individual lawsuit against the company, Dimitrouleas wrote.
The workers are considering their next moves, said a spokeswoman for David Lichter, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys on the suit.
The Orlando-based company is the largest U.S. operator of full-service restaurants.
The lawsuit, filed in 2012, alleged that servers were short-changed by policies that circumvented an automated time-clock system.
Servers who arrived for a shift were prohibited from clocking in and being paid until the first customer arrived at a restaurant, were forced to clock out before their work was finished and were not paid correctly for overtime work, the lawsuit contends.
It also charged that servers were paid below minimum wage for non-tipped work, such as cleaning the restaurants, refilling salt and pepper shakers and rolling silverware in napkins.
The judge agreed with Darden’s lawyers who argued that circumstances were different for each employee and at each restaurant, and that liability and damages for each person needed to be calculated separately.
More than 20,000 current and former employees from almost 2,000 Darden restaurants in all 50 states had requested to join the class action before it was decertified, according to the order.
Pay for restaurant employees, and workers in general, has become a growing issue in the United States over the past year. On Thursday, hundreds of employees from fast-food restaurants were arrested in protests in about 150 cities calling for higher pay.
(Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)