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Missouri to spend more than $100M settling pay claims for corrections officers

Thomas Hawk | Flickr

Missouri corrections officers would receive a back pay settlement and future payments worth more than $100 million under an agreement to end a long-running claim the Department of Corrections was underpaying officers.

Under the proposed settlement, the corrections department does not admit any wrongdoing but accepts that the payments are reasonable considering the likely result of going to trial. The plaintiffs, a class of corrections officers represented by three individuals, are happy as well, attorney Gary Burger of St. Louis, wrote in an affidavit supporting the settlement.

The agreement is the result of “hard-fought, arms-length negotiations,” Burger wrote, and “represents a recovery of nearly 33% of the damages projected by experts as the best possible day in court for the Settlement Class, and 95% of the damages projected by MDOC’s June 2022 trial expert.”

If there was no settlement, Cole County Circuit Judge Cotton Walker had set aside eight days for a trial scheduled to begin June 7. He is expected to give preliminary approval for the settlement that day, Burger said.

“We believe this is a fair and good result for the class,” Burger said. “We obtained a recovery for past damages and are getting officers paid for pre- and post-shift activity for at least eight years in the future.”

The department is pleased with the settlement as well.

“This issue has been a concern among our staff for several years,” Director Anne Precythe said. “We’re happy for them, happy to have the matter resolved and happy to be part of the solution.”

The corrections officers will accept as a settlement the $49.5 million appropriated by lawmakers for the coming fiscal year to cover back payments. The department also agreed to add 15 minutes to each shift worked by corrections officers and corrections sergeants over the next eight years.

The officers will receive an estimated $54 million in total in their paychecks, and the extra pay will cost the state $65 million including benefits, Burger wrote in the affidavit.

With past and future damages, plus attorney fees payments, the full cost to the state is between $117.5 million and $128.5 million, Burger wrote in a court filing.

For his firm’s work on the case, Burger will receive $16.5 million from the settlement fund plus his expenses for the case initially filed in 2012 and a little over $1.7 million a year, or $13.8 million toal, for negotiating the extra 15 minutes pay.

The three class representatives, Thomas Hootsell and Oliver Huff, both of Farmington, and Daniel Dicus, of Potosi, will each receive a “service award” of $25,000.

Payments to corrections officers from the fund will be based on the amount of time each officer worked since August 2007. Each class member will be paid a share based on their share of the total amount of covered time worked by all employees in the class.

The agreement sets aside 20% of the settlement fund to pay disputed claims. When all payments have been made, any remaining balance will be distributed on a prorated basis as a second payment to class members.

The lawsuit claimed the corrections officers should have been paid for the time they spent within the prison from the moment they entered until they left. The department had only paid officers for the time from their arrival at their duty station to the moment they left at the end of a shift.

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.

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.

At a trial in August 2018, a Cole County jury awarded the corrections officers $113.7 million in compensation. Burger, pushing to get the award paid, filed to garnish the state treasury in 2019. While that was unsuccessful, the verdict was upheld by the Western District Court of Appeals in October 2019.

The Missouri Supreme Court in June 2021 ordered a new trial, however, to determine exactly which activities should be compensated.

Obtaining radios and walking to their post is clearly an activity that should be compensated, Judge Patricia Breckenridge wrote in her opinion for the court.

“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.”

That trial created uncertainty that made settling the case the better choice, Burger wrote in a memo to the court.

“Even if the plaintiffs prevailed at the second trial,” Burger wrote, “plaintiff faced the potential hurdle of immediate appeal, and the uncertainty (and lengthy delay) that they had already experienced after the verdict in the first trial.”

This story has been updated since it was initially published.

Missouri Independentis part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence.

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Rudi Keller