Marion County approves $1.175 million lawsuit settlement

A new firetruck is shown at Marion County Fire Rescue Station 28 in Rolling Greens in Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. The engine was purchased entirely with funding raised through the Penny Sales Tax. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2020.

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Posted June 10, 2021 | By Carlos Medina,

The Marion County Commission approved a settlement agreement recently in a pair of federal lawsuits filed in 2019 by Marion County Fire Rescue captains seeking unpaid overtime.

[Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

Commissioners approved $1.175 million to settle the cases brought by 21 MCFR district captains in US District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

In the cases, filed separately in April and September 2019, the captains alleged they were misclassified as overtime exempt employees. While they were captains, the suits allege their job functions were primarily that of non-exempt employees and thus were due back pay for unpaid overtime, according to the lawsuits.

The captains were required to engage in fire suppression, emergency response and related non-exempt activities. They were also required to participate in the same physical fitness program and complete all required training as the other members of the crew on which they served, according to the complaints.

They also worked a schedule of 24 hours on-duty, followed by 48 hours off-duty. That meant working between 48 and 72 hours a week. Typically, overtime pay kicks in after working more than 53 hours in a seven-day period or 212 hours in a 28-day period. Captains were routinely working more than those hours, plus typically took on extra shifts at straight pay, the complaint states.

“Marion County’s position has been that the primary duty of these individuals was that of management level employees who, nevertheless, also responded to fires and other emergencies based on the demands of the situation,” according to the background provided commissioners as part of the May 18 agenda.

The county contended that each district captain was supervising four to six fire stations and pointed to the collective bargaining agreement that stated captains were exempt from overtime pay.   

In defending the settlement, however, county attorneys noted courts are not bound by collective bargaining agreements and have held that a party cannot “bargain away” their rights. Marion County was also “rather unique” in using the district captain designation. Other fire departments used “Station Captain” and “Battalion Chief” designations.

Also, similar cases usually boil down to the primary functions the employees were required to perform.

“The general conclusion reached following that discovery was that there were sufficient ‘disputed issues of material fact’ between the witnesses and parties that the County would not be likely to prevail on pre-trial summary judgment motions – meaning that the cases would have to be tried to a jury,” according to the agenda background.

Given the expense of the trial, not including the hit it would take if they lost the case – paying the full unpaid overtime wages, as well as double damages and also plaintiffs’ attorney fees – the county’s attorneys recommended the settlement.

In the lawsuit filed in April, referred to as the Riddling case, the seven plaintiffs would share $450,000. In the suit filed in September, referred to as the Garcia case, the 17 plaintiffs would split $750,000. The settlements also include attorney’s fees.

Since the suits were filed, MCFR has reorganized its staff.

“Chief (James) Banta has undertaken a re-structuring of the Fire Department, eliminating the District Captain position, and creating both the Station Captain and the Battalion Chief positions.  This stopped the on-going accrual of overtime claims in the Garcia case and will resolve many of the issues raised in these cases going forward,” the agenda information stated. 

The settlement agreements in both cases were approved by U.S. District Court Judge James Moody, who was overseeing the cases.

James Lucas, MCFR spokesman, said the reorganization will also help the department’s “span of control” so they can have well defined teams under managers.

“Consequently, it will result in faster response times for command and staging officials to get on an emergency scene to direct the work force,” Lucas said.

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