Missouri Supreme Court gives split decision in corrections overtime case

Circuit court award of $113.7 million may not be correct amount, high court says

By: - June 1, 2021 3:47 pm

(Alex Potemkin, Getty Images)

Missouri prison guards who have waited almost three years to find out if they will receive a share of $114 million in overtime for unpaid activities at the beginning and end of their shifts will have to wait a while longer, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

In August 2018, after six years of litigation, a Cole County jury awarded $113.7 million to corrections officers for the time from when they log in as present until they reach their duty post. The award was upheld in October 2019 by the Western District Court of Appeals.

The case has had its dramatic elements, such as in March 2019, when Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce ordered the state treasury to be garnished $118.5 million to cover the judgment and post-trial interest. The court of appeals blocked the garnishment a few weeks later.

In the unanimous opinion written by Judge Patricia Breckenridge, the Supreme Court ruled that officers are due some of the award, and perhaps all, but that the circuit court must do more work to determine the amount.

The ruling means preparing for another trial on the amount of damages, said attorney Gary Burger of St. Louis, who argued the case for the corrections officers.

“We just got this ruling today and we are carefully reviewing it,” Burger said. “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.”

Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office, which argued that the officers were not due any additional pay, declined to comment on the ruling because the case remains in litigation, spokesman Chris Nuelle wrote in an email to The Independent.

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.

Where the circuit court decision is lacking, she wrote, is in its analysis of each activity and their order to determine when pay should begin and when it should end.

At the start of every shift, corrections officers must log their arrival, most 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 preshift 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.

Prior to the 2018 ruling, officers received no pay for those activities.

The Department of Corrections requires officers “to perform pre- and post-shift activities that are critical to prison safety and security and intrinsic to the officers’ jobs. At the same time, MDOC has refused to pay its officers for this mandatory pre- and post-shift activities and on duty time, which averages about 30 minutes per shift during the most dangerous part of their work day,” Berger wrote.

In the state’s appeal, attorney John Sauer, representing Schmitt’s office, argued that none of the pre- and post-shift activities should be paid.

“In essence, Plaintiffs contend that, during pre-shift and post-shift time, they are principally engaged in guarding and supervising offenders, while only incidentally engaged in ordinary ingress and egress procedures,” Sauer wrote. “This characterization contradicts both common sense and MDOC’s undisputed evidence in the summary-judgment record.”

Sauer also argued that Joyce had improperly allowed the case to proceed to trial because the state has not waived its immunity from lawsuits under the Fair Labor Standards Act. In his brief to the Supreme Court, Sauer also argued that Joyce should not have allowed the case to be heard as a class-action lawsuit because the situation of each individual guard was different enough from the others to require separate lawsuits.

The court rejected those arguments. The case is based on a union contract with the Missouri Corrections Officers Association and is a breach of contract case, the court ruled. The lawsuit is properly a class-action case, Breckenridge wrote, because there are many common facts for each corrections officer and “because decertification would create the need for thousands of mini-trials that would decide identical issues.”

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.