AZ Fire District Facing Unpaid Overtime and FLSA Retaliation Lawsuit from Office Manager Responsible for Payroll

Hazel “Pepper” Corbin, a civilian office employee for the Arizona City Fire District, has filed a federal lawsuit alleging the district failed to pay her overtime as required by the FLSA and state law. Corbin’s suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona on December 2, makes rather common wage and hour allegations against the district. These claims include unpaid overtime, misclassification as an overtime exempt employee, and improper time-keeping practices. Corbin also claims her boss, the district’s fire chief engaged in several retaliatory acts following her complaints also in violation of the FLSA.

Wage and Hour Allegations

According to Corbin’s complaint she began working for the district in 2012 as an overtime exempt office worker responsible for managing payroll, distributing paychecks, processing employee pension benefits and contributions, and other clerical type activities. Corbin did not believe her job description and duties met the requirements of an overtime exempt employee. Corbin complained and the fire district eventually changed her position from an overtime exempt salaried employee to an overtime eligible hourly employee in July 2017. Corbin’s complaint alleges that she is owed backed overtime wages from 2012 to July 2017 as a result of this misclassification.

However, even though the district reclassified her position as overtime eligible, Corbin claims the district has yet to pay her any overtime, despite regularly working more than 40 hours per week. Corbin alleges the fire chief regularly alters her time cards with hand-written notations reducing her hours worked to avoid any FLSA overtime. Corbin also alleges the district’s time-tracking system fails to properly track her hours worked and improperly rounded hours worked in violation of the FLSA.

Retaliation Allegations

Next, and possibly most damaging for the district if proven, Corbin alleges the fire chief engaged in a series of retaliatory acts in the summer of 2019. Here are a few of Corbin’s specific allegations from the complaint:

  • Section 15(a)(3) of the FLSA states that it is a violation for any person to “discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceedings under or related to this Act, or has testified or is about to testify in any such proceeding, or has served or is about to serve on an industry committee.”
  • Starting in 2016 and on a repeated basis up through June and July 2019, Plaintiff complained to her supervisor, Heaton, regarding the time-clock error resulting in withholding of wages.
  • In response to Plaintiff’s complaints about the time clock, Chief Heaton told her there was nothing he could do to fix the error.
  • At that time, Plaintiff began calculating unpaid overtime and realized that she had been denied overtime wages for several years.
  • In July 2019, after Plaintiff complained about the time-clock error, Defendants reduced her hours from 80 per two-week period to 16 in retaliation for her complaint about unpaid overtime.
  • At the same time, Defendants also reduced Plaintiff’s pension plan benefits from matching Plaintiff’s payment of $165 per pay period to limiting Plaintiff’s payment to $66/month and matching that lesser amount. This reduction of pension benefits is an additional adverse action taken against Plaintiff in retaliation for complaining about unpaid overtime and wages.
  • Based on Plaintiff’s complaint to Chief Heaton, Defendants had the reasonable assumption based on Plaintiff’s complaint that she would pursue a claim and/or complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor regarding unpaid overtime.
  • Defendants made this arrangement to ensure Plaintiff could no longer earn overtime wages.

Corbin also alleges she suffered additional retaliation at work in the following ways:

  • Chief Heaton, circulated a memorandum directing other employees of Defendant not to talk to Plaintiff;
  • Chief Heaton has generally avoided contact and communication with Plaintiff and only communicates in order to intimidate her, by, for example, mentioning he can terminate her at-will;
  • Chief Heaton accused Plaintiff of opening up mail addressed to him, even suggesting that it was a Federal Offense. Plaintiff did not open mail addressed to Chief Heaton. Former Captain Robert Jarvis did open some of Chief Heaton’s mail, but only mail that Chief Heaton gave to Jarvis with specific instructions to open it for him. After Captain Jarvis resigned, Chief Heaton brought in Plaintiff and accused her of opening mail that was addressed to Heaton that was in Jarvis’s office.
  • Defendants cultivated hostility in the workplace by telling workers not to speak to Plaintiff and permitting Chief Heaton to order employees not to speak to Plaintiff (especially about her overtime and wage allegations);
  • Another two employees, firefighter Kyle Griffeth and Captain Robert Jarvis, resigned due in part to Chief Heaton’s refusal to pay overtime; and
  • Plaintiff has felt unwelcome and isolated at work since she complained about her reduced hours and about Defendant’s failure to pay overtime.

Plaintiff’s attorneys LOVE FLSA retaliation claims. Claims for FLSA retaliation are relatively easy to prove and likely open the door to a significant amount of additional damages. Damages that are not available for simple wage and hour violations. Additionally, plaintiffs do not have to successful on their underlying FLSA claim to succeed on a retaliation claim.

Employers need to carefully consider any action taken against any employee that has voiced a complaint related to the FLSA. Failure to do so could likley result in a bad situation getting much, much worse.

Do you have questions about the FLSA?

Time is running out to register for the FLSA for Fire Departments seminar next week in Georgetown, TX. However, if you are from the area, there are still a few seats available.

If you can’t make Georgetown, consider attending the Martin County, FL seminar in February, or Kansas City, MO in May. We will be discussing everything that you need to know about the FLSA and how it applies to public safety employees (and civilian staff personnel).

Here is a copy of Corbin’s complaint.  

Contact  William Maccarone to Discuss The Article