CARSON CITY -- The state Supreme Court handed a victory Thursday to an Arizona lawyer who wants Las Vegas strippers classified as club employees and paid wages by the owners of clubs where they work.
Many of the estimated 10,000 strippers in Las Vegas pay a fee to dance at clubs and sign agreements classifying themselves as independent contractors. They receive no pay or benefits and earn only tips.
Justices ruled 3-0 that lawyer Mick Rusing can bring a class-action lawsuit on behalf of strippers seeking to change that arrangement.
"This is going to force employers to stop living off the backs of these women," said Sean Brearcliffe, a lawyer at Rusing's firm. "Some of the clubs don't pay them anything and force them to pay as much as $50 to $100 per hour out of their tips. Nevada law does not let employers take tips earned by their employees."
Brearcliffe, who worked with Rusing on the case, said that in coming months he plans to file a class-action lawsuit in District Court to force strip clubs to hire dancers as they do other employees.
If a class-action lawsuit succeeds, it will allow dancers to keep their tips and receive wages, Brearcliffe said. Clubs will have to raise revenue through higher entrance fees, drink prices and other means if his law firm persuades a judge to prohibit the independent contractor arrangement, he said.
Inside the Spearmint Rhino topless club in Las Vegas, some dancers said they do not support a move to become club employees. They prefer, the strippers said, to work as independent contractors.
One dancer, who said her name is Nicole, said she makes more money now than she ever would on an hourly wage.
Clad in a tight black T-shirt, black stockings and a mini-skirt that covered only the top of her backside, Nicole asked: "Why would I want to make six dollars an hour when I can make $500 an hour now?"
Another stripper, who declined to give her name, said dancers aren't the type of employee who works 9 to 5. She explained that half of the strippers working at the club are from out of town.
"Some of them don't work every day. It's not a regular job," she said.
Judges and labor commissioners in Texas and Florida have thrown out the independent contractor agreements dancers signed with strip clubs, Brearcliffe said. His firm won a favorable decision for strippers in California.
The firm has been trying since 2000 to secure approval to represent Las Vegas strippers in a class-action lawsuit.
Brearcliffe said strippers will be notified of the litigation and their right to participate if his law firm brings action against the clubs where they work. A dancer automatically will be considered part of the litigation unless she signs an agreement that she is "opting out" of the case, Brearcliffe said.
The firm would represent the strippers on a contingency-fee basis.
Many dancers have been reluctant to join the litigation out of fear of retaliation from club owners, he said.
In oral arguments before the Supreme Court in September, Girls of Glitter Gulch lawyer Mario Lovato argued that dancers prefer being independent contractors. He said they take home hundreds of dollars in tips a night and do not have to tell clubs what they are earning.
If clubs had to pay dancers wages and benefits, they would be required by law to keep track of their tips, he added.
His response prompted Justice Mark Gibbons to wonder aloud whether dancers preferred the current arrangement because they could avoid paying taxes on all of the tips they receive.
Brearcliffe said there is no evidence that strippers have not paid taxes.
The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Rusing, Brearcliffe's colleague, has found a client -- a legal secretary who moonlighted as a Girls of Glitter Gulch stripper -- who is an adequate representative of strippers as a class.
Any case brought on her and other strippers' behalf must be considered under the state's Nevada Wage and Hour Law, which prohibits employers from using tips as credit against the $5.85-per-hour minimum wage, according to the decision.
Glitter Gulch had argued such cases should be considered under the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which allows employers to use tips as a credit against employee wages.
The decision overturns a ruling by then-District Judge Nancy Saitta, now a Supreme Court justice. She did not participate in the decision Thursday.
Saitta had thrown out the case on the grounds the "Jane Doe" whom Rusing sought to use as his client was not an adequate representative of strippers as a class. The woman worked as a secretary to the attorney son of former Supreme Court Justice Cliff Young.
During the hearing before the Supreme Court, Lovato said the secretary had signed a five-page agreement with Glitter Gulch that deemed her an independent contractor and not an employee. She also filed a federal income tax return in which she identified her stripping career as a business.
Lovato contended Rusing has been looking for five years for strippers willing to bring lawsuits against Glitter Gulch and other clubs but could not find any.
Brearcliffe said Thursday that they have not had trouble finding strippers willing to participate in litigation. But he acknowledged that in some instances, strippers moved away from Nevada and no longer wanted to be involved in litigation.
They have waited for a ruling from the Supreme Court allowing them to represent strippers as a class before filing additional lawsuits, he said. Otherwise they would have had to bring cases on behalf of individual strippers.
Contact reporter Ed Vogel at email@example.com or (775) 687-3901. Review-Journal writer Antonio Planas contributed to this report.