Lee County Officials Propose Settlement for Jail Workers

Commissioners in Lee County, Florida, have proposed a settlement for the seven plaintiffs that had sued the government body for wrongful termination. The workers, who were employed at the county jail, said they were fired because they assisted with an internal investigation at the facility. Their department had been targeted because of alleged misconduct. The group may receive a total settlement of about $500,000.

The county has not yet admitted liability in the case; administrators contend that the employees were not fired because of their participation in the investigation. Rather, the workers were terminated from their jobs because of reported racist and sexist comments that they made while at work. The workers’ jobs were later reinstated, according to local media reports.

County administrators recommended the settlement during a hearing in early March. Most of the settlement money would reportedly go to attorneys’ fees, which add up to about $300,000. If the commissioners choose not to settle with the plaintiffs, the case will go to trial. If that happens, the plaintiffs will accrue a significant amount in legal fees to argue their case, which could force the county to pay up to $1 million if even one person wins the case.

The debate in this case continues to rage. Commissioners could choose not to pay the settlement amount, which would result in a trial. Alternatively, the plaintiffs could reject the settlement, which would also prompt a trial. The decision to accept the money could hinge heavily on the fact that the settlement only provides compensatory damages, not punitive damages for emotional effects of the wrongful termination.

In this case, the county might be best-served to offer the settlement to the plaintiffs, simply to avoid the risks associated with jury trial. It is conceivable that the plaintiffs will have to spend a significant amount of money to argue their case, and the county could be required to pay even more money as a result. Settlements allow defendants to avoid the lengthy, complicated trial process while satisfying plaintiffs’ complaints.

Source: Naples News, “Commissioners agree to nearly $500,000 settlement in whistleblower lawsuit,” Maryanne Batlle, March 5, 2013

Bird sanctuary employees net thousands in back pay

Nine employees of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary will be receiving a combined $21,000 in owed back wages thanks to the results of a federal investigation into the company’s payroll processes. Media reports show that investigators discovered several minimum wage violations after an audit of the facility’s records.

The sanctuary reportedly failed to pay several employees for a period of weeks. That omission resulted in minimum wage law violations. Some employees were also paid salaries without considering how many hours they actually worked at the facility. As a result, some workers’ wages dropped below the $7.25 per hour minimum wage rate. Investigators also discovered that those employees were not appropriately compensated for the overtime hours they worked at the sanctuary.

Overtime violations are particularly easy to spot; employers must pay additional wages when workers are on the clock for more than 40 hours each week. Overtime pay often involves time-and-a-half wages, which allows employees to collect 150 percent of their regular earnings.

This is not the first time that the 67-year-old owner of the sanctuary has run into legal trouble because of workers’ rights issues. The facility was forced to close its doors for several days in 2007 because it failed to pay its workers’ compensation insurance premiums. After that, the recession seemed to hit the sanctuary hard, and violations continued to spiral out of control for the owner.

As a result, the IRS is currently seeking nearly $200,000 in owed back payroll taxes, all of which remain outstanding. The IRS has placed liens for those funds, which are in addition to the $21,000 owed to the nine workers.

Wage and hour violations are not uncommon in today’s working world, especially in small, privately run businesses. Often, such establishments do not keep proper records of hours worked and wages paid; this can lead to misunderstandings and underpayment. All employers are required to pay employees for every hour worked, even if the employee works more than 40 hours per week. Failure to do so leaves the company open to lawsuits, because employees who have not been fairly compensated have a right to pursue litigation to recover the wages that are owed to them.

Source: Tampa Bay Times, “Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary to pay $21,336 in back wages after violations found,” Anne Lindberg, Nov. 16, 2012.

Eller & Sons stunned by $11M wage judgment

A Georgia horticulture contractor has been found liable for additional wages due to a group of Guatemalan and Mexican workers. A federal judge ordered the firm to pay more than $11 million to the guest workers, who did not receive appropriate pay while they were planting trees throughout the region. Eller & Sons Trees, Inc., a Franklin company, was punished for its violation of wage and hour laws in the largest court award of its kind.

The plaintiffs in the case were represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The award was granted despite protests from the company’s owners, who say that the lawsuit effectively bankrupted the company and its primary shareholders. Legal representatives for the defendants say that entire communities in Guatemala have essentially destroyed their own ability to make money in America because they targeted Eller & Sons. The lawsuit resulted in the company going out of business, which may have removed the only link those guest workers had to America.

Nonetheless, the class-action suit was successful in obtaining compensation for the 4,000 guest workers who were employed by the company during the 1990s and early 2000s. The company had allegedly failed to pay the workers the federal minimum wage. Workers also contended that Eller & Sons should have paid a prevailing wage instead of the unreasonably low rates.

Attorneys say that the result of this case shows a judicial commitment to protecting workers throughout the nation. Even guest workers deserve to receive a minimum standard of treatment, according to legal teams associated with the case. They say that the decision will have long-lasting effects because it will give employers reason to reconsider their wage policies considering guest workers and legal residents.

In this case, not only had the employer failed to pay the federal minimum wage, but it had also failed to provide a prevailing wage; that means that people doing similar work in the area were receiving significantly more money for the same skilled work.

Source: The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, “Judge: Georgia company must pay foreign workers $11.8 million,” Jeremy Redmon, Oct. 30, 2012.

Employer accused of forcing employee to house prostitutes

Some duties that employees are forced to tend to from day to day are simply part of the job. When executives force their employees to do things outside the realm of the workplace, employment violations begin to crop up.

An employment law suit filed by a Florida employee of a debt collection company claims that his boss ordered him to provide housing to prostitutes in his home, and tormented him in other ways. He argues that these actions should be sufficient grounds for voiding his employment contract.

During his 10 year stint with the firm, he asserts, he experienced various objectionable office pranks, found that his co-workers engaged in widespread drug use and that his boss used his home for assignations with prostitutes he wished to have sex with.

His boss did this because he needed a place to engage in sex with the prostitutes, as the man was married, according to the plaintiff. The employee also discovered that one of these prostitutes was left overnight in his residence.

To make matters worse, his boss also purportedly harassed his ill mother, and referred to her with a vulgar sexual nickname and other terms referring to her anatomy. The boss also sent false text messages to the man’s girlfriend, pretending to be him, trying to lure her to a dinner.

Not all the harassment was sexual, however. The boss also kept as much as half of all the commissions which the employee earned on successful collections, denying the employee a major part of his compensation, he claims.

Rightfully so, the employee wants to be awarded damages, including the withheld commissions, as well as to be released from his remaining contract with the company. The lawsuit was filed in a Florida state court. No worker should be forced to endure such a hostile work environment.

Source: Huff Post Small Business, “Mark Oliff, Florida Man, says Boss used his home for sex with prostitutes,” Sept. 28, 2012.