Friday, Nov 28, 2014

Jurors side with Pinellas sheriffs in jail lunch break lawsuit

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CLEARWATER - After deliberating for four hours, a jury concluded Wednesday that detention deputies had failed to prove that three successive Pinellas County sheriffs had them work, without pay, during half-hour meal breaks.

Former detention deputy Douglas Morgan filed a class-action lawsuit in March 2006, claiming he and his colleagues at the Pinellas County Jail were made to work an extra half-hour each shift without pay. Morgan started working for the sheriff's office in 1985 and retired in 2004.

As there are roughly 1,000 detention deputies who are said to have worked that half-hour without compensation since 2004, the potential damages exceeded $10 million, according to Tommy Roebig, one of the attorneys representing the detention deputies. About 750 detention deputies now work at the jail.

Had the sheriff's office lost, it would have been on the hook for at least part of that amount.

After the verdict, Rich McCrea, the attorney representing the sheriff's office, credited Sheriff Bob Gualtieri for fighting the lawsuit rather than settling out of court.

"The deck is stacked against a government entity," McCrea said. "It's an inherently risky venture."

Morgan's attorneys portrayed the jail as a tense workplace where deputies were forever on the alert, even during their supposed meal breaks, because they were outnumbered by inmates, and co-workers might need their assistance at the drop of the hat. While eating in a chow hall, they typically left their radios on, the attorneys said,

It's a world where deputies have to make sure they don't miss seeing an inmate pulling a shank out of a garbage can or urinating on someone's green beans, Florin told jurors. Usually, detention deputies want to stay at their posts so their colleagues aren't overwhelmed.

"Is it any surprise people are rushing through their meal ... because they don't want to leave someone on the floor with seven or eight inmates?"

McCrea, who was essentially defending Gualtieri and his two predecessors, Everett Rice and Jim Coats, depicted a more easy-going environment.

Supervisors made sure deputies got their meal breaks. Deputies were permitted to leave the jail before their shifts were technically over. And no deputies were required to stay at their posts while they ate. Indeed, they were not supposed to eat at their posts because the practice was considered unsafe, he told jurors.

Deputies were allowed to go wherever they wanted for their half-hour breaks, as long as they told their supervisors beforehand. The supervisors had to know where they were in the event of an emergency, McCrea said. And if they had to work during what was supposed to be their meal times, they were paid overtime.

"The overwhelming evidence in this case was that detention deputies were not required to spend their time in the presence of inmates," McCrea told jurors. "The half-hour belongs to them."

Deputies were free to go to their cars, nap or read if they wanted, he said.

"Mr. Morgan has argued that the detention deputies who ate in the chow hall weren't completely relieved of all duties," McCrea said. "Eating in the chow hall was a matter of choice, and it wasn't the only choice. They could leave the premises if they wanted to."

Florin suggested jurors discount whatever they had heard of deputies going to Chick-fil-A during their breaks, or making pizza runs, or leaving early. The sheriff's office would be liable if there were even one instance where a deputy was not compensated for working during what should have been an uninterrupted 30-minute break, he argued.

"It's not some of the people some of the time or some of the people all of the times," Florin said. "It's all of the people all of the time.

"If you get only 29 minutes, you haven't been fully compensated," Florin said. "This class hasn't been fully compensated."

McCrea, though, told jurors that for their half-hour meal times to be considered work, that time would have to have been spent "predominantly" in the sheriff's service.

"Even if one had to listen to one's radio, that doesn't make it work," McCrea said.

Morgan's attorneys failed to put on the stand anyone who could recall instances where their meal breaks had been interrupted.

"Not a single class member came into this courtroom and testified about a specific date or incident where they were called out of a meal," McCrea said.

The two sides also disagreed over whether there was a contract in place, between the sheriff's office and the detention deputies, touching on the half-hour meal break.

Because it was understood the deputies would be paid for all the time they worked, a contract was in effect, Florin argued. But jurors seemed to agree with McCrea, who contended there was no contract in effect.

sthompson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-6504

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