Not Everyone Has Fond Memories of the Hilltop Steakhouse

The Saugus eatery was part of a "landmark" court case involving managers taking tips from employees.

News that the Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus will be closing on October 20 steered much of the conversation on Twitter and Facebook on Thursday, with many people sharing their happy memories of the restaurant online.

But not everyone has a special place in his or her heart for the steak-slinging eatery that sits along Route 1, beckoning passerby to stop in with its signature cactus sign.

In 2006, Hilltop Steakhouse was in the news for more than just its menu offerings. The restaurant was the focal point of a class action suit brought on by former employees of the establishment, who claimed the management team was skimming tips from their day jobs, and putting the money in their own pockets. Some were even fired for coming forward and complaining about the situation, according to court documents.

Shannon Liss-Riordan, an attorney at Lichten and Liss-Riordan, who represented the employees when the case landed in Essex Superior Court more than 6 years ago, said it was a “landmark case” that brought much-needed attention to the state’s labor laws, and led to more compliance of those laws in the years since the complaint was resolved. “That was a turning point when that verdict came out, and it increased awareness about the tips law in Massachusetts,” she said, adding that she was unaware that the restaurant was closing its doors.

According to a article from 2006, an Essex Superior Court jury found that Hilltop Steakhouse’s function department illegally funneled tip money into the pockets of managers, and the restaurant “wrongfully fired four waitresses because they complained about losing a percentage of their tips.”

From the report:

The jury awarded $125,000 to each of three plaintiffs, and $75,000 to a fourth. The jury also found that harm suffered by the waitresses as a result of the restaurant’s violation of the tip law and its decision to fire them merited tripling of $610,000 in damages. Of that, $160,000 will be shared by 42 members of a class certified by the court. With the addition of attorneys’ fees and interest, the final judgment is expected to increase beyond $2.5 million.

The case was the first of 19 that went to trial, following changes to state laws that no longer required waiters and waitresses to dole out a portion of their earnings to upper management or kitchen staff.

At the time the verdict was handed down, siding with the staff at Hilltop Steakhouse, Liss-Riordan said managers at the restaurant were allegedly taking four-percent of the tip money added onto customers’ bills.

In a phone interview Thursday, she recalled the class action suit, and said it was “big news” for the industry when it all unfolded and they finally won the case. “It brought it forward and informed people about the laws. For years I did a lot of cases, and I was always surprised about how many employers were still not following the law. I think that this got the attention of a lot more employers,” said Liss-Riordan, whose firm specializes in labor and employment lawsuits. “I would say that that case led to more employers being aware of their duties under the law, and also led to a lot of restaurant employees learning about their rights under the law.”

Liss-Riordan said she hadn’t eaten at the establishment since before the lawsuit in 2006, but remembered taking her own children there when they were very young. She wasn’t surprised by the news that Hilltop Steakhouse was closing, but said it was unlikely that the court’s decision had anything to do with them shuttering their doors. “There were threats of it closing at the time, but they closed a Braintree location. I think they would have gotten back on their feet [since 2006],” she said. “I’m not really surprised by anything, but it’s been a landmark and it’s been an institution, so you know, I’m sure a lot of people have feelings about it one way or another.”

Some of those feelings were happy ones, as shown through comments and Tweets on social media, while others haven’t been so great. “An abomination. A blot. An embarrassment. Good riddance. Even the most kind-hearted nostalgic person won’t tolerate a restaurant which withholds the waitstaff tips,” one commenter wrote.