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Missouri corrections officers still waiting on $118 million payout from DOC

Missouri corrections officers still waiting on $118 million payout from DOC

April 1st, 2019 by Jeff Haldiman in Missouri News

FILE: Plaintiffs and attorneys who won a civil lawsuit against the Missouri Department of Corrections over unpaid compensation and overtime compensation display the jury verdict Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018, at the Cole County Courthouse.

Lawyers representing Missouri Department of Corrections workers in an unpaid compensation lawsuit say DOC has failed to follow court orders to pay the workers compensation they were awarded and to implement a new timekeeping system.

Presiding Judge Pat Joyce heard arguments Monday on a civil contempt motion filed by attorney Gary Burger, of the Burger Law Firm in St. Louis, who represented the officers, and members of the Missouri Attorney General's Office, which is representing the DOC.

The lawsuit filed Aug. 14, 2012, accused the department of requiring corrections officers to work before and after assigned shifts without being paid for the mandated work, which included going through security, signing in, getting their keys and getting to their duty assignment locations for the day.

The DOC denied that it should pay employees for time spent on pre- or post-shift activities, arguing the time spent on such activities is minimal and the pre- or post-shift activities are not compensable under state law.

During a civil trial Aug. 10, Joyce ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding the DOC had breached its agreements with the officers.

The jury heard evidence and reached the verdict that the department owes $113,714,632 in damages. Five million dollars in interest has been added to that amount, bring the total payout to more than $118 million.

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The suit covered 11 years, affecting 13,000 officers. There are 4,500 officers currently working who would be affected, and the rest are retired.

In October, Joyce denied a motion for a new trial, also approving a stipulation requiring the DOC to implement a system to accurately track the amount of time officers work.

In November, the attorney general filed an appeal before the Western District of Missouri Court Appeals on behalf of DOC.

Burger said Monday it was clear from the conduct of DOC and the state that they will not comply with the earlier rulings in Joyce's court.

"Paying for pre- and post-shift activity and having a timekeeping system is something corrections officers have been arguing for for 15 years," Burger said. "The state argues that they can't pay anything until the Legislature approves the funding, but we have found that they have never asked the Legislature to pay the money that is owed to these workers.

"Those officers had a contract with the state for the work they did. It's just like the state agreed to pay the workers who are repairing the Capitol right now."

Assistant Attorney General John Sauer told Joyce the state has sovereign immunity in a case like this. He said state Supreme Court cases dating back to the 1930s indicate the state can't make payments until the case goes through the appeals process.

"We're not arguing that we won't pay if the courts rule we have to," Sauer said. "We request that the court quash the plaintiff's garnishments to Central Bank and Jefferson Bank and prohibit further garnishment attempts while the state is appealing the case."

In filings with Joyce, the attorney general said DOC has been unable to implement the timekeeping system Joyce ordered because "circumstances beyond DOC's control have delayed the process."

The state argues that without the Legislature authorizing funding, it would be "unlawful for DOC to use public funds for purposes that have not been authorized."

However, the court documents show that in January 2018, eight months before Joyce made her ruling in the case, Assistant Director of Adult Institutions Melissa Scheulen was assigned to look into procurement of an electronic timekeeping system. They also acknowledge that from April through November of last year, DOC did an assessment of timekeeping products and selected a vendor in December. It will take six months to put the system in place.

"They argued last year to the court that you (Joyce) can't order us to impose a timekeeping system because it is impossible," Burger said. "This was really surprising to learn this, and I think it is not in good faith to comply with your ruling."

Joyce said she would read through briefs filed by both sides. She did not indicate when she would make a ruling.