Dias & Fragoso, Inc. v. Dep't of The Cal. Highway Patrol, F082219

CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals
Writing for the CourtDE SANTOS, J.
PartiesDIAS & FRAGOSO, INC., et al., Plaintiffs and Respondents, v. DEPARTMENT OF THE CALIFORNIA HIGHWAY PATROL, Defendant and Appellant.
Docket NumberF082219
Decision Date23 August 2022

DIAS & FRAGOSO, INC., et al., Plaintiffs and Respondents,
v.

DEPARTMENT OF THE CALIFORNIA HIGHWAY PATROL, Defendant and Appellant.

F082219

California Court of Appeals, Fifth District

August 23, 2022


NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Kings County No. 20C-0117. Kathy Ciuffini, Judge.

Rob Bonta, Attorney General, Matthew Rodriquez, Acting Attorney General, Thomas S. Patterson, Assistant Attorney General, Heather Hoesterey and Jose A. Zelidon-Zepeda, Deputy Attorneys General, for Defendant and Appellant.

Sagaser, Watkins &Wieland, Howard A. Sagaser and Lisa M. Horton for Plaintiffs and Respondents.

OPINION

1

DE SANTOS, J.

Commercial drivers generally are subject to various federal and state hours-of-service and on-duty time limitations. Vehicle Code section 34501.2, subdivision (c)[1](section 34501.2(c) or § 34501.2(c)) provides certain hours-of-service exceptions for drivers engaged in intrastate transport of farm products from the field to the first point of processing or packing. (§ 34501.2(c)(1).) The statute specifically defines "[f]irst point of processing or packing" as "a location where farm products are dried, canned, extracted, fermented, distilled, frozen, ginned, eviscerated, pasteurized, packed, packaged, bottled, conditioned, or otherwise manufactured, processed, or preserved for distribution in wholesale or retail markets." (§ 34501.2(c)(3)(B).)

In this case, plaintiffs Dias &Fragoso, Inc., and Danell Custom Harvesting, Inc. (collectively, plaintiffs), sued the Department of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) seeking a declaration their transportation of chopped cornstalks to a location for fermentation fits the definition of first point of processing under section 34501.2(c)(3)(B) and thus qualifies for an agricultural hours-of-service exception under section 34501.2(c)(1). The trial court construed section 34501.2(c)(3)(B) in favor of plaintiffs and granted their motion for summary judgment, which the CHP now appeals.

The CHP contends the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because declaratory relief is not available in the context of the case. The CHP further argues the hours-of-service exception for transporting farm products does not apply to plaintiffs' operations because: (1) the chopping and mulching of cornstalks in the field to create the silage is the first point of processing; and (2) the phrase "for distribution in wholesale or retail markets" unambiguously modifies all prior processing descriptions such that only farm products processed for distribution in wholesale or retail markets fit the definition. Finding no merit to the CHP's arguments, we affirm.

2

LEGISLATIVE BACKGROUND OF SECTION 34501.2

When section 34501.2 was enacted in 1984, federal regulations principally prohibited interstate commercial drivers from driving more than 10 hours or for any period after having been on duty for 15 hours. (49 C.F.R. former § 395.3 (1980), 45 Fed.Reg. 46425 (July 10, 1980).) Section 34501.2 set limits generally consistent with federal hours-of-service requirements, but it carved out an express exception for vehicles engaged solely in intrastate commerce that were not transporting hazardous substances or wastes, which were limited to 12 hours maximum driving time within a work period. (§ 34501.2, former subd. (b)(4); Stats. 1984, ch. 779, § 4, p. 2772.)

In 1992, section 34501.2 was amended to align hours-of-service limitations on commercial vehicles engaged in intrastate commerce with federal regulations applicable to drivers engaged in interstate commerce transport. In enacting the amendments, the Legislature intended to "address the alarming increase in commercial truck accidents in California caused by driver fatigue due to excessive hours of service" by regulating "the hours of service of drivers of commercial vehicles engaged in intrastate commerce in a manner equivalent to federal regulations applicable to interstate commerce, with a minimum of exceptions." (Stats. 1992, ch. 1144, § 1(b), pp. 5308-5309.)

Among the limited exceptions for vehicles engaged in intrastate commerce, former section 34501.2(c)(1) provided two exceptions for vehicles transporting farm products:

"(c) The regulations adopted under Section 34501[2] for vehicles engaged in the transportation of farm products in intrastate commerce shall include all of the following provisions:

"(1) A driver employed by an agricultural carrier ..., including a carrier holding a seasonal permit ..., or by a private carrier ..., when

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transporting farm products from the field to the first point of processing or packing, shall not drive for any period after having been on duty 16 hours or more following eight consecutive hours off duty and shall not drive for any period after having been on duty for 112 hours in any consecutive eight-day period, except that a driver transporting special situation farm products from the field to the first point of processing or packing, or transporting livestock from pasture to pasture, may be permitted, during one period of not more than 28 consecutive days or a combination of two periods totaling not more than 28 days in a calendar year, to drive for not more than 12 hours during any workday of not more than 16 hours. A driver who thereby exceeds the driving time limits specified in paragraph (2) of subdivision (b) shall maintain a driver's record of duty status, and shall keep a duplicate copy in his or her possession when driving a vehicle subject to this chapter. These records shall be presented immediately upon request by any authorized employee of the department, or any police officer or deputy sheriff. [¶] ... [¶]

"(3) For purposes of this subdivision, the following terms have the following meanings:

"(A) 'Farm products' means every agricultural, horticultural, viticultural, or vegetable product of the soil, honey and beeswax, oilseeds, poultry, livestock, milk, or timber.

"(B) 'First point of processing or packing' means a location where farm products are dried, canned, extracted, fermented, distilled, frozen, ginned, eviscerated, pasteurized, packed, packaged, bottled, conditioned, or otherwise manufactured, processed, or preserved for distribution in wholesale or retail markets.

"(C) 'Special situation farm products' means fruit, tomatoes, sugar beets, grains, wine grapes, grape concentrate, cotton, or nuts."

As required by the statute, CHP's Commissioner codified a regulation that rearticulated the statutory exception for intrastate transport of farm products. California Code of Regulations, title 13, section 1212, subdivision (k) (Regulations section 1212(k) or Regs. § 1212(k)) currently provides as follows:

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"(k) Farm products.

"(1) A driver when transporting farm products from the field to the first point of processing or packing, shall not drive;

"(A) More than 12 hours following eight-consecutive hours off duty.

"(B) For any period after having been on duty 16 hours or more following eight consecutive hours off duty.

"(C) For any period after having been on duty for 112 hours in any consecutive eight-day period.

"(2) A driver transporting special situation farm products from the field to the first point of processing or packing, or transporting livestock from pasture to pasture, may be exempted from the eightday cumulative limit, specified in Sections 1212(k)(1)(C) and 1212.5(a)(4), during one period of not more than 28 consecutive days or a combination of two periods totaling not more than 28 days in a calendar year. [¶] ... [¶]

"(5) For purposes of this section, the following terms have the following meanings:

"(A) 'Farm products' means every agricultural, horticultural, viticultural, or vegetable product of the soil, honey and beeswax, oilseeds, poultry, livestock, milk, or timber.

"(B) 'First point of processing or packing' means a location where farm products are dried, canned, extracted, fermented, distilled, frozen, ginned, eviscerated, pasteurized, packed, packaged, bottled, conditioned, or otherwise manufactured, processed, or preserved for distribution in wholesale or resale markets.

"(C) 'Special situation farm products' means fruit, tomatoes, sugar beets, grains, wine grapes, grape concentrate, cotton, or nuts." (Regs. § 1212(k)(1)(A)-(C), (k)(2), (k)(5)(A)-(C).)

Other statutory provisions render motor carriers subject to misdemeanor citations and fines if they schedule, require, or permit the operation of any motor vehicle in a manner that exceeds the maximum hours of service. (§§ 34501.3, subd. (a)(2) &(c), 40000.21, subd. (g).)

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FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The facts are undisputed. Plaintiffs are custom harvesters of corn silage and similar feeds for dairies located in and around Kings County. The dairies grow the cornstalks and plaintiffs use specialized harvest equipment to cut them in the field while they are still green, which is often referred to as "greenchopping." Plaintiffs then transport the harvested stalks to the dairies where the cornstalks are packed and covered so they can be fermented. Once the cornstalks are transformed into silage through the anaerobic bacterial fermentation process, the dairies use the silage for livestock feed; generally, the cornstalks are not used for feed until the fermentation process is completed. There is only a short window of time for the cornstalks to be harvested and transported or they will rot in the field.

In February 2020, after a CHP officer auditing an agricultural client of plaintiffs' counsel told the client the cutting and transportation of cornstalks to dairies to ferment into silage would not qualify for the section 34501.2(c) hours-of-service exception for transportation of farm products, plaintiffs' counsel sought an opinion letter from the CHP's Enforcement and Planning Division whether plaintiffs' operations would qualify for the...

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