The Missoula County sheriff and deputies at the county jail have filed a lawsuit against the county, claiming it violated the Wage Claim Act by failing to correctly calculate their wages and thus, has been underpaying them for several years.
Filed in Missoula District Court, the suit contends that each plaintiff is owed back wages, overtime pay and longevity pay. They're also seeking to recover underpaid wages and penalties for non-payment that they believe they're due under state law.
The plaintiffs include Sheriff TJ McDermott and several dozen detention officials.
“The county has been illegally withholding payment …” the suit contends. “This was done as a scheme by the elected officials sitting on the County Compensation Committee to give the elected officials a raise without passing it along to Sheriff McDermott and the detention officers.”
The county on Monday said it disagreed with several aspects of the pending litigation.
“Missoula County disagrees with the pending litigation alleging that the sheriff was not appropriately compensated with longevity pay, which then affected detention officers' pay because their collective bargaining agreement (not state statute) ties detention officer pay to the sheriff's salary,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick.
“We believe the compensation board decided within the law, and Missoula County will work with the courts to reach a conclusion as efficiently as we can and with as minimal impact to taxpayers as possible."
Under state law, the county sheriff must be paid the same salary as other county elected officials, plus $2,000 a year, the suit suggests. That salary and any bonuses related to special certifications must be considered when calculating wages paid to sheriff deputies.
Like deputies, detention officers are included in the pay metrics. Whenever the county awards a pay increase to the sheriff, the suit contends, then it must also increase the pay for detention officers and deputies.
The lawsuit alleges that in an effort to increase the salary of county elected officials, the county enacted a “longevity payment scheme” to circumvent a required pay increase to the sheriff and subsequent payment to the detention officers.
“Under the county longevity scheme, elected officials are being rewarded for simply remaining in their jobs,” the suit suggests. “This is not a legal factor for pay increases under (state law). The county's longevity payments were part of an ongoing and interconnected continuing scheme to give elected officials salary increases while depriving detention officers of their corresponding salary increases.”
In June, the county reluctantly approved a $3.4 million settlement stemming from a similar wage claim brought by current and former deputies within the sheriff's department.
Under that suit, deputies argued that they were entitled to three years' worth of unpaid wages based upon the earnings of the county sheriff and his additional pay earned through special certifications associated with his position.
The case with detention officers is similar to that of the deputies in that they also believe the county failed to calculate their pay based upon the full amount of the sheriff's pay.
"We value, respect and appreciate the relationship we’ve worked to build with the Sheriff’s Office over the past several years, and it’s unfortunate that we’re in this disagreement now,” Slotnick said.