Federal Court Orders Mass. Town (Again ) To Pay Police OT
In an ongoing battle between the Town of Agawam and its police officers regarding the Fair Labor Standards Act, U.S. District Court of Massachusetts Judge Ponsor affirmed the Town’s liability. His decision in the case of O’Brien v. Agawam (O’Brien III) (March 31, 2007) rejected four arguments raised by the Town.
First, the Court rejected the Town’s argument that regular rate or base pay for purposes of calculating overtime should exclude time spent on paid leave. “Plaintiffs’ ‘regular rates’ should be calculated by adding their annual salaries, wage augments, and roll call pay, then dividing that amount by the number of hours these payments are intended to compensate (1950 plus roll call time).” Second, the court affirmed that the officers should be compensated during their meal breaks, which are unscheduled and during which they remain “on call.” As a side note, the Court states that the Massachusetts meal break law, G.L. 149, §100, does not apply to municipalities.
In the third and most significant aspect of its decision, the Court sets forth the standard to calculate overtime liability for periods of “court time.” Under the FLSA, officers receive 1.5 their regular rate for hours worked beyond 40 (unless the employer affirmatively adopts a §7(k) period). Applying this principle to periods of court time can be tricky, given that many officers receive a minimum payment of 3-4 hours pay whether or not they work that time. In cases where the Town does not record actual time worked by officers at court, Judge Ponsor said that the employee first must show: 1) he “performed work for which he was improperly compensated”; and (2) sufficient evidence of “the amount and extent of that work as a matter of just and reasonable inference.” This is not an onerous task, noted the court, and the officers discharged their burden with an affidavits from officers estimating that they actually worked the minimum amount of time. At this point, the burden shifts to the town to refute the reasonableness of the employee’s claims. As the court noted, “the purpose of the burden-shifting scheme in cases like this is to prevent an employer from capitalizing on its failure to maintain records.” Here, the Town did not supply counter affidavits from court officials who could challenge its claims that officers did not the claimed time in court.
Finally, Judge Ponsor affirmed that the Town must pay liquidated damages, which means that Plaintiffs will receive double unpaid overtime compensation.