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Sunday, Apr. 20, 2014

Detectives win lawsuit vs. county, sheriff

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A federal jury has awarded over $375,000 to individuals suing Bedford County and Sheriff Randall Boyce for unpaid overtime -- as well as for retaliation after reporting the matter to officials.

However, sources have explained to the T-G that the damage and attorney fees paid could total close to $1 million.

Following a trial in Chattanooga that lasted nearly two weeks, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs -- Bedford County officers David Sakich, Kevin Holton, Scott Jones, former detective Todd Hammond, and maintenance worker Jeremy Beech.

County attorney John T. Bobo stated that John Schwalb, the lawyer hired by the county's insurance agent, informed him the total amount of damages had "not yet been calculated," and it would not be appropriate to comment further until the county had more information.

Suit claims

The suit, filed in summer 2011, accused Sheriff Randall Boyce and the county of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The jury deliberated for a little less than three hours Thursday before rendering their verdict.

The four detectives said they had been denied overtime and straight time compensation and were worked "off the clock," also accusing department members of retaliating against them for exposing the issue.

Sakich and Holton also say they were demoted from detectives to patrol duty for "whistle blowing activity." Beech later joined the suit, while Hammond began working with another law enforcement agency prior to the litigation being filed.

Award amounts

The jury found that the county and Boyce had violated the FLSA, as well as the Public Employee Pension Forfeiture Act (PEPFA), awarding Sakich and Holton $75,000 each in damages for the claimed retaliation.

According to the jury's verdict, the five proved that the county and Boyce "either knew their conduct was prohibited by the FLSA or showed reckless disregard for whether their conduct was prohibited by the FLSA ..."

Sakich received the highest award of overtime pay from the jury, $87,987.05, while Jones got $43,097.52, Hammond received $35,133.10 and Holton was awarded $19,390. The jury also awarded Beech with $40,207.08 in overtime pay.

In total, the plaintiffs were awarded $375,814.75 by the federal jury.

Higher damages?

But a source with knowledge of the suit explained to the T-G that the awarded back pay amount, around $240,000, will most likely be doubled due to the jury finding there was "reckless disregard" connected with the FLSA and PEPFA violations.

As for the damages awarded to Sakich and Holton for retaliation, that figure will most likely be tripled due to statutory multipliers -- to $225,000 for each officer.

In addition to the money awarded to the five, the federal court will address their attorney fees at a later date, with a source close to the trial process estimating that figure to total around $200,000 -- possibly higher.

In total, the suit could end up costing Bedford County around $950,000. The question is how much of this amount will be covered by the county's insurance, and how much will be on the taxpayer's dime.

Suit origins

The overtime issue came to light in May 2011 after Sakich and Holton ran into county finance director Robert Daniels, who had reportedly joked that the two must be "eating the county up" with overtime pay "because of the extreme number of hours" the two had been working, the suit said.

But the pair told the county official that they were not paid either overtime or comp time, which surprised Daniels. He later informed Bedford County Mayor Eugene Ray about the situation, who in turn spoke to Boyce.

The lawsuit had claimed the sheriff blamed Sakich and Holton "for exposing the illegality" of the department's failure to compensate them for overtime worked. Sakich and Holton took time off that June, hoping that the issue would be resolved, but when they returned, they found the Narcotics and Crime Suppression Unit had been disbanded, both were removed from the Criminal Investigative Division, scheduled so they would no longer work together and were demoted back to patrol division.

Then, in July 2011, the Bedford County Board of Commissioners asked the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division to conduct an investigation of the sheriff's department over the matter, but the request was later denied.

The detectives filed their suit against the county and Boyce three weeks later.