In a closely watched case across California, the state Supreme Court has left in place a ruling that allows a home health care worker to sue Sonoma County for wages that her disabled client did not pay her.

The key issue was whether Sonoma County could be considered a "joint employer" of the caretaker and therefore responsible for her unpaid wages.

A lower court ruling left that question in the hands of a jury, prompting an appeal from the county. A statewide organization of counties and the state Attorney General's Office joined the county in asking the high court to review the case. It turned down the request Wednesday.

The three-year-old case has drawn wide notice because it could allow an untold number of caretakers to pursue similar claims against counties for unpaid wages.

The statewide In-Home Supportive Services program, administered by counties and funded by state and federal dollars, pays nearly 360,000 workers to care for about 450,000 low-income, ill and disabled residents.

Advocates for home health care workers contend that thousands of the caretakers have been cheated out of their wages. But because attempts to reclaim that money from clients often are fruitless, some caretakers have turned to counties for their lost wages.

The lawsuit filed against Sonoma County by Adelina Guerrero emerged as a test case to see whether such claims could go forward.

Guerrero said she logged nearly 600 hours of work over four months in 2008 and 2009 helping Alejandra Buenrostro with personal care, housekeeping and other services. But she was never paid, she claimed.

Guerrero's attorneys said Buenrostro submitted the time sheets to the county and collected Guerrero's paychecks, totaling $10,300. Including penalties, the suit seeks approximately $20,000 from the county. Guerrero has also sued Buenrostro.

The county argued it wasn't Guerrero's employer because it was not involved in hiring or supervising her work.

But Guerrero's attorneys, from California Rural Legal Assistance, argued that the county's administrative role, including its say on her total work hours, constituted enough control over her post to be deemed an employer.

The case is now headed back to Sonoma County Superior Court, with a status hearing set for Aug. 6.

(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or