Starbucks Turns to Top California Court to Axe `Trifling' Claims

(Bloomberg) -- Starbucks Corp. has a message for workers suing over tiny amounts of unpaid labor: Forget about it.

The world’s largest coffeehouse chain has been fighting for six years with a shift supervisor from one of its Burbank, California, stores over his demand to be compensated for the extra time it took to turn off the lights, activate the alarm and lock up after he clocked off for the night.

The case is before the state’s highest court Tuesday to draw a line on when the stakes in a dispute are so small that it’s not worth the fight. A loss for Starbucks could expose it and thousands of other employers to class-action lawsuits accusing them of cheating workers out of wages.

Backed by state and national business groups, Starbucks is relying on the maxim that “the law cares not for trifles” -- the basis of a rule courts use to filter out claims that are too minute to consider.

“There could be innumerable lawsuits over a few seconds of time," Starbucks said in a court filing last year. “The ‘de minimis’ rule is one of common sense and everyday practicality."

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The federal court of appeals in San Francisco, which considered the case two years ago, asked the California Supreme Court to weigh in, given that the state’s courts have been reluctant to apply federal limitations on California’s more employee-friendly labor provisions.

Starbucks has had mixed luck in California courts. In 2009, the company won a state appeals court ruling reversing a judge’s order to pay $86 million in restitution for allowing supervisors to share in servers’ tips. In March, Starbucks and dozens of other coffee brewers and retailers lost a long-running fight over a California law that requires them to tell consumers that coffee contains a chemical known to cause cancer.

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