Lawsuit could change Chattanooga's overtime rules

Lawsuit could change Chattanooga's overtime rules

May 15th, 2013 by Todd South in Local Regional News

Chattanooga City Council

Photo by Jenna Walker/Times Free Press.

A recent ruling in a federal civil lawsuit by a retired Chattanooga Fire Department captain could mean the city will have to start paying captains overtime.

U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice ruled on May 6 that retired fire Capt. Ronald Barrows didn't show he had worked enough overtime as a captain to win any damages, but the judge ruled that Chattanooga's 2010 ordinance potentially violated laws on overtime pay for first responders.

The City Council passed a resolution in July 2010 that exempted nearly 200 positions from overtime pay. Most of the city jobs exempted had been defined as to some degree managerial, according to court documents.

But Barrow saw it differently.

The Fair Labor and Standards Act allows some jobs to be exempt from overtime pay laws. First responders who do "front line" work such as firefighting or commanding teams that fight fires are not exempt, according to the act.

But the city defined fire captain duties as mostly managerial.

Barrows' attorneys, Chris Markel and Wilson Von Kessler II, discussed the ruling Tuesday.

"These guys really are rank and file," Von Kessler said. "They live in their trucks ... going into burning buildings."

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's spokeswoman, Lacie Stone, said Tuesday that the city will review its rules and procedures for overtime pay in light of Mattice's ruling but city attorneys have not decided whether to appeal the decision.

Barrows was one of 75 fire captains in the department at the time of his 2010 lawsuit. Markel and Von Kessler said they expect other captains soon to request overtime. They also said the ruling might open up other jobs for overtime pay.

Markel criticized the city for not closely evaluating each position before categorizing jobs such as fire captain in the overtime exemption.

"They took a huge paintbrush and said there are a lot of officer positions here that can be exempted," he said. "What [the ruling] means is these other positions will be open for some degree of scrutiny."

The city has 30 days to file an appeal of the decision, but under legal guidelines the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals requires substantial proof and argument to overturn the district-level court judge's decision.