Costly police overtime case to go forward Federal appeals court sends 6-year-old suit back to city for trial

September 29, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A federal appeals court has ruled that a 6-year-old lawsuit on which Baltimore has already spent $1.3 million in legal fees must go forward, potentially costing the city millions of dollars in back overtime pay for police supervisors.

The Sept. 23 ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., sends the case back to Baltimore for trial. It involves 180 sergeants and lieutenants fighting not only for the right to overtime pay, but money retroactive to 1989.

City Solicitor Otho M. Thompson vowed yesterday to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. "This has wide implications to other governments," said Thompson, who hired a law firm from )) Washington to handle the case.

The appeal would mean further delay in a case that was filed in 1992 by police supervisors who argued that despite being ranking officers, they had little say in policy. Therefore, they said, they should not be considered management and should be entitled to overtime pay.

"We can now get to the issue at hand, which is determining whether they are management personnel or so far down in the chain of command that they are merely carrying out the policies that are set by higher-ranking officials," said Michael Marshall, a lawyer for Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3.

The city had asked the appeals court to throw out the case and argued that it was unconstitutional for local governments to be subjected to federal labor laws, particularly the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Had the city prevailed, the case would have had broad implications for local governments well beyond Maryland by negating overtime for many municipal workers who are entitled to the extra money under federal law.

"A successful challenge could free all state and local governments from the costly burden of overtime pay mandated by this law," according to a written explanation by the city's Law Department, justifying the $1.3 million spent to retain the Washington law firm of Arter & Hadden.

Lawyers were unable to say how much money is involved. But both sides agree that millions of dollars in back pay are at stake, and even more in future pay if the officers win.

The unanimous decision by the three-judge panel ruled that federal labor law can be applied to local government. The ruling said the judges found "the city's contention to be without merit."

Marshall said the city has wasted its money trying to get the lawsuit dismissed. He said that, in 1990, the city "could have taken that million and divided it among the plaintiffs, agreed to pay overtime in the future, and this case would have gone away."

Thompson said city lawyers expected to lose, especially after the same court ruled against Anne Arundel County in a nearly identical case last year.

Pub Date: 9/29/98

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