Circuit court award of $113.7 million may not be correct, high court says
Jefferson City – Missouri prison guards have waited nearly three years to find out if they will receive a share of a nearly $114 million circuit court judgement against the Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC). Now they have to wait a little longer, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled last week.
DOC officers sued the department in 2013, alleging it failed to compensate them for necessary overtime work.
After six years of litigation, a Cole County jury, in August 2018, sided with the corrections officers, awarding them $113.7 million in damages, plus interest, for pre-shift and post-shift activities, including receiving assignments from supervisors and retrieving keys, radios and other equipment.
The circuit court jury found those activities were compensable and said the department had breached its contract with the officers by failing to compensate them for that work.
The award was upheld in October 2019 by the Western District Court of Appeals.
In the state’s appeal, attorney John Sauer, representing Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office, argued that the officers were not due any additional pay for those activities.
Last week, in the unanimous opinion written by Judge Patricia Breckenridge, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict but sent the case back to the circuit court to determine what other tasks might be covered by the continuous workday rule.
Attorney Gary Burger of St. Louis, who argued the case for the corrections officers, said the ruling means preparing for another trial on the amount of damages owed the officers.
“We are carefully reviewing it,” he said of the ruling. “This has been a long fight. We really look forward to continuing this fight for the hard working and underpaid men and women corrections officers.”
In her ruling, Breckenridge wrote that officers must be paid from the moment they perform the first task “integral and indispensable” to their jobs until they have completed the last such task. However, she wrote, the circuit court decision was lacking in its analysis of each activity and the order in which the activities were performed to determine when pay should begin and when it should end.
At the start of every shift, corrections officers must log their arrival, go through a security screening for weapons and contraband and report for their duty assignment. They obtain keys and radios and walk through the prison to their post.
While walking to their post, corrections officers must be ready to respond to any emergency or security incident that occurs anywhere in the prison.
Obtaining radios and walking to their post is clearly an activity that should be compensated, Breckinridge wrote.
“For pre-shift activities, each activity must be evaluated in chronological order until an activity, standing alone, is compensable as a matter of law,” she wrote. “Any activities occurring before the first compensable activity need not be compensated, but all activities after the first compensable activity must be compensated.”
At the end of the shift, they must walk to the exit, pass on any information needed by the next shift, turn in keys and radios and log out. Some have other duties, such as officers who patrol in vehicles, who must inventory the equipment in the vehicle at the end of every shift.