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story.lead_photo.caption Columbia County Justices of the Peace and county officials wait for a Tuesday, April 9, night specially-called Columbia County Quorum Court meeting to begin. The gathering addressed the settlement a three-year-old civil lawsuit dealing with backed overtime pay. Pictured are: (L-R) JPs Jason Ray and Marjie Blair, County Attorney Becky Jones, County Judge Larry Atkinson, County Clerk Tammy Wiltz, Assistant County Clerk Diane Ferguson, JPs Lynn Story, Steve Lee, Burnie Sharp and Penny Cook. Not pictured are: JPs Annette Pate and Oliver Thomas. - Photo by J.D. Bailey

A civil lawsuit filed against Columbia County claiming the denial of overtime wage compensation was settled this week after the local quorum court on Tuesday approved a $45,000 payment resolution to be issued to four former county employees.

The suit dates back to 2016 when initial plaintiff Michelle Rasberry, a former worker at the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, filed a “collective and class action” complaint against her ex-employer. In total, two others, listed only as “others similarly situated,” and Johnny Haynes were noted as plaintiffs, according to an April 8 settlement order from U.S. Chief District Judge Susan O. Hickey.

The original complaint was filed Aug. 4, 2016, in Arkansas’ Western District federal court. The plaintiffs were represented by Sanford Law Firm PLLC of Little Rock.

The county had engaged in settlement talks over the life of the case, with the matter even set to go to trial on Monday, but a final recommendation from the county’s civil counsel left the local government with little wiggle room and the potential for far greater financial risk if the case were further pursued.

“What the county was facing here was the possibility of $100,000-$125,000 in outlay — not including the cost of defending the case through probably a three-day trial,” said Jason Owens, a Conway-based attorney who for 16-years has represented Columbia County in civil litigation matters.

The legal rep later stated that there were “flaws” in defending the matter, and that, along with approximately $50,000 in backed pay and liquidated damages, the plaintiffs’ legal team would have also likely desired another $50,000 or more awarded to cover their own fees.

The crux of the case dealt with wages per hour under the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act and the Arkansas Minimum Wage Act, according to Owens. Both statutes cover similar aspects of on-the-job compensation.

“This case is mostly about allegations that four folks were not paid for overtime that they alleged they worked,” he said.

According to Rasberry’s 15-page August 2016 complaint, she alleged that she was “routinely required to work off-the-clock in excess of 171 hours in a 28-day work period and was not allowed to report all hours worked, including overtime.” The allegations also claimed her employer (Columbia County) knew about the excess hours.

The complaint later stated that the reason she did not receive overtime pay was due to her being “misclassified as a salaried employee and non-exempt from the requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act.”

Columbia County elects to pay compensatory time to many of its workers instead of overtime, according to Owens. The policy accumulates 1.5 hours of paid time off for any hour worked over 171 hours in a 28-day pay period. Law enforcement agencies are allowed the 28-day pay period instead of the standard 40-hour work week.

Rasberry formerly held an “entry-level” position at the Columbia County jail, according to her complaint. The filing described her job-duties to include supervision and booking of inmates, performing clerical work and answering phones, along with numerous other administrative-type tasks.

County officials said Tuesday that at least eight plaintiffs were initially involved in the case, then six, and then the final four once two individuals either withdrew or were recently dismissed from the case.

The $45,000, according to Owens, covers all expenses associated with the case on the plaintiffs’ end – including the backed overtime sums of roughly $24,000-$27,000 total, liquidated damages, and attorneys fees. There was an indication from County Judge Larry Atkinson, that, upon passage of the settlement appropriation ordinance by the quorum court, payments would likely be mailed to the plaintiffs later in the week.

“He was hoping that by Friday he could get checks to these folks,” he said.

The settlement amount was issued from the county’s special jail projects fund.

In an effort for the county to be as transparent as possible, no quorum court executive session was held Tuesday when discussing the settlement, and a brief description of the suit was issued to any new or unfamiliar Justices of the Peace.

In his brief address to the court, Columbia County Sheriff Mike Loe stated that Rasberry was employed at the agency’s office as far back as the Calvin Knighton administration (2001-2009) and that she resigned after a promotion was made to another individual within the office. Loe has been sheriff since winning the office in 2010.

“I forget exactly how long, but sometime after that is when she filed the lawsuit,” hesaid.

The sheriff was hesitant to go too much further into the details of the suit, saying that he was not an attorney and wanted to parse his words, stating only that the ex-employee claimed she was “owed overtime for a long period of time.” He later added that sheriff’s office calculated overtime on a separate timesheet and the federal wage law “slants it in her favor.”

“There’s a lot more in-depth to it,” he said, but wished to comment publicly on the matter no further.

After a lengthy discussion on the nuances of where the settlement funds would be derived from, the county appropriation ordinance was passed unanimously by present JPs Marjie Blair, Jason Ray, Annette Pate, Oliver Thomas, Penny Cook, Burnie Sharp, Lynn Story, and Steve Lee. JPs Terry Williams, Rick Waller, and Russell Thomas were not present for Tuesday’s gathering.

The case has now been dismissed, according to federal court filings. The plaintiffs by settling must cease any further litigation against the county in the matter, according to the county’s legal counsel.

“Essentially, we’re exchanging that $45,000 for a full release and settlement agreement whereby the plaintiffs would agree not to continue this lawsuit and the case would be dismissed,” said Owens.

Note: This article was updated April 12.

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