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Mary Duan here, with news from the courts. On April 9, a Los Angeles-based attorney named Brian Kabateck filed a lawsuit in Monterey County Superior Court that he tells me is not political, but it’s one that most definitely has political—and financial—ramifications at the county and state level. At the behest of the California Restaurant Association, Kabateck is filing lawsuits all over the state, against various counties, county health departments and the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, because as the restaurant industry was being hammered by the pandemic, counties and health departments and the ABC still wanted the permit fees restaurants pay to operate.

In Monterey County, Kabateck’s client is Monterey Martini Inc., doing business as Lalla Oceanside Grill, and since it’s a class-action lawsuit, his clients also include “all others similarly situated.” In Monterey County, that’s hundreds of restaurants.

It’s not a political suit, Kabateck says, because while there’s been a lot of discussion on whether the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown orders were a bad idea or whether the government exceeded its power in making those orders, this is purely about money, and why restaurants were forced to continue paying county and state fees for permits allowing them to operate when in fact they were forced to close.

“It’s like buying a fishing permit,” he says, “and being told the pond is closed. It’s simply not fair to pay for something that you then can’t use. This shouldn’t even be a close call.”

So far, Kabateck and his legal associates have filed suit in 11 or 12 counties. They’re focusing on what he called “restaurant-heavy counties,” like Monterey, in the hopes that smaller counties will get the message and relent on the fees and issue refunds. It’s not a ton of money per restaurant—a few thousand dollars for smaller operations, up to about $10,000 for larger, busier places. 

Interestingly enough, Fresno relented even before Kabateck could file suit and is offering credits and refunds on fees paid during the shutdown. Kabateck served Monterey County last Oct. 22 with a claim—a first step before suing a government agency—and Monterey County rejected that claim on Dec. 10 without comment. Thus the suit. His local case will have a first hearing on Aug. 10.

“We’re talking to counties about doing the right thing,” he says. “A lot of counties have gotten federal aid money and they can pass it on. We’re not talking about a lot on an individual (per-restaurant) basis, but it can make a big difference.”

The lawsuit itself is almost poetically written, which is something I’ve rarely seen in three decades of covering courts. Here’s a taste: “Monterey County is home to hundreds of restaurants—big and small, internationally famous and best kept secrets, fine dining or the local hole in the wall,” it reads. Those restaurants “represent a mosaic of cultures and are an economic lifeline for the thousands who work in the industry.”

Restaurants are now allowed to be open for partial indoor dining, and they still represent an economic lifeline for thousands. Later this week, in the print edition, I’m writing about the difficulties many places are facing in hiring some of those thousands back, and staffing up to serve masses not only hungry for the food they serve, but for the human connection restaurants provide for us all.

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