Sergeants union asks council to negotiate overtime suit

July 05, 1992|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Calling the legal action a "frivolous waste of taxpayer money," a police sergeants union is urging the County Council to help settle a three-year suit against the county that has cost more than $200,000 in lawyers' fees.

The union says it would have been cheaper for the county to settle with them than to appeal a U.S. District Court decision to allow sergeants back overtime pay.

"With the current fiscal crisis the county faces, its inability to fund merit raises, cost of living increases, and its inability to provide the services the public needs, it seems outrageous that the county continues in this 'no-win' lawsuit," union president Timothy Branning wrote in a letter to the County Council in May.

Some County Council members who received the letter said they were disappointed the suit had dragged on for so long.

"I think it's time for the county to call in the dogs, because it seems to me they should give up the hunt on this one," said C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd.

The civil suit -- Kessler et al. v. Howard County -- was filed in 1989 by nearly 40 sergeants and lieutenants who claimed the county owed them overtime pay as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act. The suit is now in the Circuit Court of Appeals, which is expected to hand down a decision in six weeks to four months, according to lawyers.

The county has spent more than $200,000 in the suit and appeal, said Maggie Brown, assistant to the county administrator.

If the county had not appealed and had agreed to the lower court's decision, it would have paid $85,000 in overtime pay dating back to December 1987 and lawyers' fees, said Michael T. Leibig, police union lawyer.

County Administrator Raquel Sanudo said the county had no choice but to continue the suit.

Ms. Sanudo said the county is fighting a much bigger battle, and that a win for the sergeants could set a precedent allowing overtime pay for other supervisors and administrators in county government. "Then what about other departments in other areas?" she said. "This would open a big Pandora's box."

"Theoretically, it could go up all the way to the county executive level," said Leonard Cohen, a lawyer representing the county.

"The decision to appeal the case was made by the previous administration," Ms. Sanudo said. "The bulk of the expenses was incurred by the previous administration."

Ms. Sanudo said there may come a time when the county wants to offer executive and administrative employees overtime pay -- which is not required by the Fair Labor Standards Act. But for now, she said, it's up to the court to decide.

"There is a principle here, and that principle is whether or not you pay overtime to individuals who are not required by law to get overtime," she said. "The issue needs to be resolved."

At issue is whether sergeants' work involved primarily managerial or supervisory duties, which would exempt them from the overtime rate when they worked more than 40 hours a week.

The U.S. District Court in February ruled in the county's favor that lieutenants were not entitled to overtime pay and that lieutenants and sergeants did not work on a salary basis.

However, it ruled in the sergeants' favor that those who worked in street drugs, child abuse and patrol units -- among 13 others -- should receive overtime pay. The county is appealing that portion of the ruling, which would allow overtime pay dating back to Dec. 21, 1987, for all but certain administrative sergeants.

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