A federal civil lawsuit brought by two Columbia waitresses alleging minimum wage violations by the company that owns the popular California Dreaming restaurant just off the University of South Carolina campus has been given the provisional go-ahead to proceed as a class action.
An arbitrator who examined the allegations in the lawsuit has determined that the allegations have enough merit to allow more than 1,000 current and former workers at three California Dreaming restaurants in South Carolina to be contacted as potential plaintiffs with claims. The lawsuit still has to be given final approval.
“Notices went out in the last week to approximately 1,300 current and former employees,” said Columbia attorney Todd Ellis, one of three lawyers representing California Dreaming waitresses Brittany Bradley, a past employee, and Tamia Corbitt, a current employee.
Neither CentraArchy Restaurant Management Co., which owns California Dreaming, nor its lawyers responded last week to requests for comment.
Ellis has fought this battle before.
In a similar lawsuit against the South Carolina restaurant company Carolina Ale House Co., the same plaintiffs’ lawyers in 2015 settled a claim resulting in a judgment worth some $3 million for past, current and future workers, according to federal court records.
In an answer to the California Dreaming lawsuit, CentraArchy denied all the allegations and said its “method of compensation was lawful,” that it had paid the plaintiffs all money due them and that the plaintiffs knew about the company’s payment system in advance of being hired.
Potential plaintiffs in the case are all tipped employees – servers, food runners, hosts and hostesses, and kitchen-based service bartenders – employed at California Dreaming restaurants in Columbia, Charleston and Greenville in the past three years. Plaintiffs must have made less than $7.25 an hour to be included.
CentraArchy has about 20 properties in several states, including, in South Carolina, California Dreaming restaurants in North Myrtle Beach and Surfside. Only the Columbia, Charleston and Greenville sites are involved in the lawsuit.
Basically, the lawsuit alleges that California Dreaming management required workers who got tips to participate in an “invalid tip pool” and share tips with kitchen bartenders who have no customer interaction and, as part of the workers’ employment, they are paid less than minimum wage “in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.”
California Dreaming only paid its tipped employees $2.13 an hour, plus tips, the lawsuit alleges. According to the lawsuit, it is a violation of federal law to pay tipped employees $2.13 an hour and then force them to share tips with co-workers who do not customarily receive tips.
“Defendant did not permit plaintiffs and other similarly situated employees to retain all tips they received,” the lawsuit said.
According to the order granting provisional class action status, if the plaintiffs win, they will be able to recover unpaid minimum wages and possibly other damages.
For example, a server who worked 100 hours and was paid $2.13 per hour for each hour worked might get $5.12 per hour for each of those 100 hours – $512. The arbitrator in the case could also double the award, according to court records.
The arbitrator in the case is Kris Cato, a certified arbitrator and Columbia lawyer specializing in labor law. Cato will oversee trial-like proceedings and make a final decision in the case. There is no jury.
Besides Ellis, the plaintffs’ lawyers are Jim Griffin and Badge Humphries, all of Columbia.
Among the restaurant’s attorneys are Molly Cherry of Columbia and Shannon Oliver of Atlanta.
According to CentraArchy’s website, its mission statement is: “To operate unique restaurants where our people are able to create a dining experience that exceeds our guests’ expectations and, in so doing, achieve the highest potential in their food service careers.”
The website describes the company’s restaurants as being “the largest volume units of their kind in their respective markets. We believe this is because we offer outstanding food priced modestly for the quality and competently served. Our facilities are also spectacular with several of our restaurants having won design awards. We go to great lengths to ensure that in each restaurant you will be comfortable and feel special.”
In Columbia, the popular California Dreaming restaurant is in an old train station with soaring ceilings off South Assembly Street. In Charleston, the restaurant features a wrap-around deck and bar overlooking the Ashley River.
CentraArchy Restaurant Management Co. is headquartered in Charleston. The privately held family business does not release financial information.