Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre and current and former employees have signed off on a $183,311 settlement of a federal class-action lawsuit over a wage dispute, ending one of three major litigation matters burdening Manfre’s administration without an admission of wrongdoing on the Sheriff’s Office’s part.
The settlement motion, filed jointly by the sheriff’s office and ex-deputy Daniel Ruddell, the latter on behalf of existing and former employees, was submitted to the District Court in Jacksonville Monday and is awaiting a judge’s signature. The settlement is the result of a day-long mediation between the two sides in December.
The two sides “agree that this is a fair settlement and that it is in both of their best interests to resolve this matter, pay the settled claims, and dismiss this matter,” the agreement concludes.
Ruddell in September filed the suit, claiming that as a deputy he was required to attend pre-shift briefings off the clock, cheating him of wages or overtime. Several deputies subsequently joined the lawsuit. Manfre denied wrongdoing. He conceded that such briefings took place—for road deputies and corrections officers—but said the practice dated back to the former administration of Sheriff Don Fleming. The practice was ended when Ruddell filed for back wages.
The settlement will award an average of $487 in back pay to 104 current and former road deputies, and an average of $1,670 to current and former corrections deputies, assuming each of the employees files a claim, or an opt-in consent form, within 48 days of the judge signing the order, otherwise the money is forfeited. The burden is on the employees to file those claims. By making the claim, an employee also releases the office of all wage claims related to shift briefings. Those who do not file a claim can still sue. Eligible claimants must have been employed for any period of time at the sheriff’s office between April 4, 2011 and April 14, 2014.
The amounts include almost $40,000 in “liquidated damages,” which are the equivalent of compensation for a perceived wrong, even though the sheriff’s office is not conceding a wrong. “For the purpose of settling this case, the plaintiffs were insisting that some amount were set aside for liquidated damages,” Sid Nowell, the sheriff’s office‘s attorney, said, “and for the purpose of settling, we agreed to do that, but we included a non-admissions clause.”
Morgan and Morgan, the Orlando firm that litigated the case on behalf of Ruddell and other employees, will receive $45,000, which is part of the $183,311 total. Ruddell, in addition to the $631 he’s entitled to as his calculated share of the settlement, will receive an additional $2,500 for the time, travel and expenses he incurred as the point man in the suit. “His role in this matter was crucial to the success of settling this matter,” the agreement states, and the sheriff’s office agreed “with the incentive payment and believe[s] it to be a fair part of this settlement.”
Some 18,000 pages of documents were analyzed before the Dec. 3 mediation session.
“The Parties agree that the terms of settlement reached reflect a reasonable ‘give-and-take’ on the major issues in dispute,” the final settlement states. “Specifically, [the sheriff’s office’s] agreement to make any payment to Plaintiffs reflects a significant concession (for purposes of settlement only). In return for that concession, the Parties then reached a reasonable compromise with respect to the number of overtime hours worked each week by Plaintiffs, ultimately agreeing to compensate Plaintiffs for a reasonable estimation of overtime hours worked for each week wherein overtime hours could have been worked.” The italics are part of the original document.)
Ruddell vs. Manfre: The Documents
The agreement sums up Manfre’s position, stating that the sheriff’s office “denied that Plaintiffs were not properly compensated for their overtime hours worked. Defendants [the sheriff’s office] also asserted that any alleged amount of unpaid overtime hours is nominal. In addition, even if Defendants had been found liable, they asserted good faith and reasonable grounds for any wage violations which could have precluded Plaintiffs from recovering liquidated damages (i.e., double damages) under the FLSA,” the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. “Finally, Defendants contend that even if they had been found liable, any violation was not willful,” a distinction that enables the settlement to include a two-year statute of limitation.
“I think it’s unfortunate that it appears that the sheriff’s office did something wrong when in fact this was a practice that had been in place many, many years prior to this administration,” Nowell said Wednesday. “Certainly there was no intent to deprive anyone of compensation they were entitled to. That’s evidenced by the length of time it took someone to actually complain about this. Nobody realized that there was a problem. I might add, as soon as it was brought to this administration’s attention, they corrected it. So in some ways, this administration is paying for the sins of prior administrations.”
The settlement amount was not, of course, part of the sheriff’s budget, but somehow the money was available, and the sheriff had been anticipating some form of payment for months. “Obviously it’s going to have a negative impact because we did not anticipate this claim,” Nowell said, “but as I understand it, and I’m not the finance person, the sheriff’s office is going to be able to cover this expense and maintain his budget. We did not have to go to extraordinary efforts to pay this claim, the money was there, we found it in the budget.”
Originally, Nowell said, the wage claim’s total was closer to between $400,000 and $450,000, which “would have had a tremendous impact.”
In late January, after months of delay and wrangling with the union, the sheriff agreed to award a 1 percent raise to employees, retroactive to Oct. 1. The money had been withheld pending a clearer understanding of how much the office would have to pay in the wage settlement. Manfre then said he’d seek a 5 percent raise in the coming budget year, along with the institution of a “step” plan that would automatically result in annual pay increases for experience and merit.
The wage settlement leaves Manfre facing two other legal matters: a wrongful termination lawsuit by former finance director Linda Bolante, and ethics violations that appeared headed for a settlement until the Florida Ethics Commission refused the proposal, because it had reduced three violations to one, in a plea agreement—a reduction the commission did not abide. The commission asked for a new investigation into the two claims that would have been dismissed. The matter is still pending.
Nowell said the office also faces “a couple of arbitration coming up, grievances from employees.”