Judge Sides with WV Firefighters In First Round of Holiday Pay Dispute; Extent of Damages and Fate of Retaliation Claims Remain

A Berkeley County West Virginia Circuit Court judge issued a summary judgement ruling in favor of approximately three dozen current and former Martinsburg, West Virginia firefighters following a 2018 lawsuit over holiday pay. A summary judgement ruling is a judicial decision based on undisputed facts without the need for a full-blown trial.

Here, Judge Laura Faircloth found the city liable for violating a West Virginia statute related to holiday-compensation for firefighters without the need of a trial. However, the judge could not, at this stage of the litigation, determine the amount of damages owed to the firefighters for this violation. Additionally, the judge also couldn’t reach a decision, absent a trial, on the merits of a retaliation claim raised by the firefighters shortly after the initial lawsuit was filed. This does not mean the city prevailed on these issues, it simply means there judge needs more information to reach a decision.

Initially, the firefighter’s claims were limited to a rather simple violation of a firefighter-specific West Virginia wage and hour law related to holiday pay. West Virginia wage and hour law requires firefighters receive an equal amount of paid time off or time and one-half pay for all recognized holidays. For example—under West Virginia statute—firefighters receive 24 hours of time and one-half pay OR 36 hours of paid time off for all legal holidays. The firefighters sought back pay, damages, and attorneys’ fees dating back ten years. The statute of limitations under West Virginia law, for these types of claims extends to a maximum of ten years.

However, only three months after the firefighters filed the initial lawsuit over holiday pay, the city’s former fire chief instituted a new sick leave policy that required firefighters receive a doctor’s note after being sick for two consecutive days. A new policy that only impacted firefighters. Whether or not the new policy was retaliation for the firefighters’ lawsuit is unknown at this time, however the timing of such a policy is extremely suspect. Additionally, even if the new policy was legitimately implemented and was not a retaliatory act following the initial lawsuit, the legal costs associated with its implementation have likely far outweighed any benefit for the fire department. Implementing this policy after the filing of the lawsuit was not a good move.  

Finally, this case illustrates a number of important concepts regarding compensation for firefighters. First, this was a lawsuit filed in state court. This is unusual, since most lawsuits over unpaid wages originate in federal courts. However, here the firefighters are not alleging any federal law violations. Instead, their claims are rooted in West Virginia State Law. This allows the firefighters to file their claims in the state courts. Second, West Virginia state law will allow the firefighters to receive damages for the past 10 years. This 10-year statute of limitations dwarfs the traditional FLSA look-back of between 2-3 years. Third, the damages related to the retaliation claim, if proven, could very easily dwarf the damages for unpaid wages. Employers need to be ready for wage and hour lawsuits. Instituting a “new policy” following a lawsuit over wage-and-hour issues is a huge liability. A liability that can be completely avoided.

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