Unique Butler, who used to strip at Norma Jean's Nite Club (pictured, photo by Patrick Pilkey) on the Block, Baltimore's downtown strip-club district, should be dancing with joy today. That's because a federal judge yesterday decided she had been an "employee" of Norma Jean's, not an "independent contractor" as the club had contended, and therefore she should've been paid at least the minimum wage under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), rather than working only for tips, minus a $45-per-shift fee she paid the club. Now that U.S. District judge William Nickerson has ruled in Butler's favor, the only thing left to determine is how much money she's going to win – an issue that, as Nickerson explained in his ruling, will be determined at a yet-to-be-scheduled trial. Unless, of course, Norma Jean's decides to settle instead. Complicating the settlement picture, though, is another FLSA lawsuit against Norma Jean's, filed in September by another former stripper, Raqiya Whyte, which seeks class-action status so that other Norma Jean's strippers who danced only for tips rather than wages can join in the fight. As
reported in October, Whyte had been called as a witness in the Butler case –and subsequently lost her job at Norma Jean's, prompting her minimum-wage suit to include another cause of action: that she was fired in retaliation for exercising her free-speech rights. The club's lawyer, former Baltimore City Circuit Court judge John Themelis, wrote a letter to Nickerson on Nov. 3 – before the judge ruled in Butler's case – explaining that the prospects for a settlement in the Butler case had been dimmed substantially by the arrival of Whyte's complaint. "In light of the second case being filed before the settlement conference" in the Butler case, Themelis wrote, "it makes any settlement impossible," especially given "the excessive numbers" Butler and her attorney, Jamon Wiggs, "have in the past discussed." Themelis added that "I can assure you that the Plaintiff has no belief in settling any of the cases in a reasonable manner." If Themelis thought Butler and Wiggs were making unreasonable settlement demands before, Nickerson's ruling - which strengthens Whyte's position and may help her case gain class-action status - is likely to only exacerbate his frustrations.