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Can You Refuse to Pay a Mandatory Tip?

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By Andrew Lu on February 04, 2013 11:10 AM

You may have heard about this in the news: A pastor in Missouri refused to pay a restaurant's "mandatory tip for large groups. He wrote on the receipt, "I give God 10% -- why do you get 18?"

The unidentified pastor scribbled out the automatic gratuity, replaced it with a big "0," and signed it "Pastor," reports Gawker.

While the pastor may have went a little overboard expressing his righteous indignation for auto-gratuities, at some point you've probably felt the same. But can you really unilaterally decide not to pay a "mandatory" tip?

The answer is not entirely clear. That's because there is no uniform body of law that addresses tipping. Instead, we have to rely on case law, and these decisions depend upon specific facts in specific jurisdictions.

For example, some courts have found that automatic "tipping" is not enforceable. So if a patron chooses not to pay this tip, he can and the restaurant cannot go after him for theft charges. The reason is that tips are by nature voluntary and an add-on for good service, eHow explains.

Because of this, many restaurants instead call their auto-gratuity a "service charge," typically reserved only for large groups. This is similar to a tip, and you are likely to encounter a 15% to 18% charge. But this service charge may be legally enforceable, as it is no longer characterized as a tip and, arguably, is therefore not a voluntary payment.

Typically, for these service charges and other additional charges to be enforceable, the patron needs to be made aware of them before the meal. So a restaurant can't simply serve the meal and spring a 30% gratuity on a patron.

Though some restaurant owners have resorted to legal action (as happened in Philadelphia in 2009, according to WCAU-TV), disputes over tips are rarely ever large enough to fight over in court. Instead, it's usually about the principle of paying a surcharge for shoddy service. The best way to avoid the auto-charge is to ascertain beforehand if there are any automatic fees, and eat somewhere else if there is.

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