The City of Selma, Alabama has reached an undisclosed “confidential” settlement with three fire department assistant fire marshals/fire investigators following their 2021 lawsuit for unpaid overtime, breach of contract, and FLSA retaliation. The plaintiffs’ complaint set forth three basic allegations. First, the plaintiffs claim the city misclassified them as overtime exempt employees in violation of the FLSA. Second, the city failed to provide promised educational incentives to one of the plaintiffs in violation of city policy [i.e., breach of contract claim]. Third, the city retaliated against the plaintiffs following their complaints over their overtime exempt classification by omitting them from large across-the-board pay increases granted to all other fire department personnel.
In the end, the city and all three plaintiffs agreed to an undisclosed “confidential” settlement that includes an unspecified amount of back wages. Surprisingly, according to the settlement, the amount of back wages is equal to what the plaintiffs had claimed to be owed. Additionally, the settlement includes attorneys’ fees for the plaintiffs’ attorneys, and an agreement to reclassify assistant fire marshals/fire investigators as overtime eligible employees moving forward. Attorneys representing both the firefighters and the city petitioned the court to keep the terms of the settlement private.
There are at least two key take-aways from this lawsuit and eventual settlement. First, is imperative that professionals responsible for paying firefighters and other public safety personnel have a good understanding of the FLSA and the rules pertaining to overtime exemptions. For example, the FLSA and Department of Labor rules create an inference that all employees are eligible for overtime. If an employer wants to treat an employee as overtime exempt, the employer bears the burden of proving that an employee meets the requirements of that overtime exemption. Employers should understand the basic requirements of the various overtime exemptions that are being applied to employees and most importantly the rationale that supports that classification.
Second, employers must be very diligent in avoiding any employment decisions or actions that could be construed as retaliation once an employee or a group of employees’ voice concerns related to wage and hour matters. It is not always necessary that the employee or employees file a lawsuit to receive protection under the FLSA’s broad anti-retaliation provisions. Any employment related decisions following a wage and hour claim, or even an internal complaint related to pay practices need to be carefully weighed prior to implementation to avoid a potential additional costly allegation of retaliation during the course of litigation.
Here are copies of the Joint Motion for Approval and Joint Motion to File Confidential Settlement along with earlier coverage of this lawsuit from FirefighterOvertime.org.