Healdsburg’s Costeaux French Bakery files class action lawsuit over pandemic-era business fees

French bakery Costeaux, one of Sonoma County’s best-known grocery brands, sued the county and state on Monday for reimbursement of business fees paid, while public health contracts aimed to curb the spread of COVID-19 to limit or restrict its operations and others across the state shut down.

The lawsuit seeks repayment of public health and business license fees and government fees for controlling alcohol. It was one of seven similar class action lawsuits filed against counties in the past few days, and the state charged with pandemic public health orders alleged the plaintiffs were overly intrusive on businesses.

“California’s restaurant owners are struggling to pay their bills and keep workers busy,” said the 28-page complaint filed with the Sonoma County County Supreme Court on April 9th. “Nearly 70% of California restaurant owners are at risk of being evicted from their property as bills pile up, including fees, taxes, and other fees imposed by the same government agencies that limit the restaurants’ ability to fully increase work.”

The Healdsburg Bakery has roots in the town that date back to the early 1920s. Will Seppi, a second generation family owner, agreed to serve as the lead plaintiff in the local case. He hasn’t made any comments in the past week.

The bakery is represented by Brian Kabateck of Kabateck LLP, a Los Angeles-based firm that has filed similar lawsuits in six other counties in the past few days – Contra Costa, Santa Clara, Monterey, San Bernardino, Riverside and Placer. The wave of lawsuits follows similar cases in the San Diego, Orange, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles counties filed in January.

“We see this as a significant overreach of the government,” said Kabateck on Monday in a press release.

The lawsuit itself could encourage counties to reimburse business owners for fees without going to court, Kabateck said in an interview last week. “We still hope these counties are doing the right thing,” he said.

Sonoma County’s attorneys were aware of the pending lawsuit since the Costeaux bakery filed a claim with the county in December. “We have found no merit in the allegations,” said Paul Gullixson, the county’s communications manager, on Monday.

The county’s health department has offered permit extensions and a wide range of other services to help minimize the impact on local businesses, including restaurants, during the pandemic, he said.

The Sonoma County’s Board of Supervisors in January directed the county to use a $ 2.8 million fund to help businesses that paid operating fees but couldn’t fully open or operate at all during the pandemic, said Gullixson. Officials have been working on criteria for managing this money and are due to report back to the board on April 29th.

Supervisor James Gore, who represents Healdsburg, said he urged the action to respond to frustrations such as those raised in the lawsuit.

“One of the reasons I have struggled to either cancel these fees or refill them with district funds is because I believe that charging people fees while they are closed is at least disruptive,” Gore said last week.

In January, Costeaux French Bakery and Seppi, the company’s president and CEO, were part of a group of 50 restaurants, wineries and hotels in Sonoma and Napa counties to sue Governor Gavin Newsom over his public health ordinances, particularly restrictions on meals in the Outdoors. The group called the Wine Country Coalition for Safe Reopening is not involved in the new lawsuit.

Seppi’s recent crusade is likely to attract some allies within the government, but it also carries some public risk that counteracts the impact of health contracts, which has also impacted a far larger area outside of the business community.

“I think the state should have forgiven many things and [fees are] one of them, or at least they should have been reconsidered, “said Cynthia Ariosta, owner of the Tra Vigne Pizzeria in St. Helena and spokeswoman for the Wine County Coalition, in an interview last week.

The group’s original lawsuit against Newsom was suspended for the time being as the business restrictions were lifted earlier this year. It could be refilled if the governor reverses course amid the ongoing pandemic, she said.

The French bakery Costeaux operates four retail stores and one bread wholesale business. In January, he told The Press Democrat that he had lost millions of dollars in the ten months of limited operations and downtime due to the virus. At the beginning of the pandemic, he laid off more than 60% of his 125 employees. Restored jobs have left him with about 80 employees, many of whom only work part-time while eating outside is banned, he said in January.

The Cousteaux Bakery’s lawsuit named Sonoma County, the Department of Health and the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control as defendants.

The bakery is demanding unspecified damages in excess of $ 25,000, according to court records.

Click here to read the lawsuit.

Look back for updates on this story.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ AndrewGraham88

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