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May 07, 2010
Can Deputies Sue as a Class?
A Florida sheriff’s office employee, with nearly 20 years on the job, felt that he and his fellow deputies had not been paid properly for performing their jobs. He went to court seeking what’s known as “class certification”—the right to include all detention deputies affected by the sheriff’s policy during a 2-year period—for his lawsuit.

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What happened. “Myers” sued the sheriff of Pinellas County in a Florida trial court. He contended that detention deputies were all treated the same way: They were paid for an 8-hour day that included an 8  1/2-hour shift and an unpaid 30-minute lunch break. Deputies were required to attend a roll call that began 30 minutes before their shifts started, during which they would be assigned responsibilities and notified of any problems they might encounter during their shifts. They were paid for this extra half-hour, but not for a half-hour lunch break.

Myers testified that any deputy who wished to leave the premises for the lunch break could do so if he or she obtained permission. But he and other deputies also testified that they were virtually never given permission to leave and were required to be on-call throughout their lunch breaks in case any problems arose. In theory, if they were called out for problems, they would then be paid for their lunch break, but it was unclear in this opinion whether that ever occurred.

Myers sued for breach of oral contract, quantam meruit (a phrase roughly meaning “reasonable value of services”), and unjust enrichment—meaning the sheriff’s office or the county got more than they paid for from the deputies. But the trial court judge ruled that the plaintiffs didn’t have enough in common to constitute a legitimate class. Myers appealed that finding to the 2nd District Court of Appeal of Florida.

What the court said. Appellate judges seemed puzzled as to why the trial court judge ruled that the plaintiffs couldn’t be a class. They were all treated the same way, and Myers was typical of all of them—an estimated 1,000 people who had worked as deputies during the designated period. If they differed in their dates of hire and length of service, judges said, those were matters that would influence damages, but not the class membership. And, the question here was formation of a class, not whether the class’s claim was likely to have merit. So the case was sent back to the trial court for class certification. Morgan v. Pinellas County Sheriff, 2nd District Court of Appeal of Florida, No. 2D09-1352 (3/5/10).

Point to remember: A class action can be expensive: If these plaintiffs win, the county could owe each of 1,000 people for up to 260 additional hours of work.

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