A Berkeley County canine officer who says he wasn’t paid for time spent taking care of his dog has filed a lawsuit against the county seeking back pay.
He’s also seeking back pay for working holidays and overtime.
The lawsuit could cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars before it’s all over, because other deputies in the same situation can join in, as one officer did this week.
Berkeley County attorney Nicole Scott Ewing said the county does not comment on pending litigation. The county has hired the national labor and employment law firm Fisher and Phillips to represent the department in the case.
Deputy James Lamar Blakely, who has worked for the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office since 2001, filed the suit in U.S. District Court in May alleging the county knowingly did not pay him and other officers for some regular work hours and unpaid overtime.
A member of the canine unit since 2008, Blakely also is seeking payment for time spent “feeding, watering, grooming, bathing, exercising, cleaning up after, training and bonding” with his dog.
The lawsuit was filed as a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act in federal court, according to Marybeth Mullaney, a Mount Pleasant attorney associated with Jaffe Glenn Law Group, which specializes in FLSA actions. FLSA cases often involve many employees, but in order to participate, others must opt in to the lawsuit.
Jaffe Glenn has filed as many as 800 FLSA cases in the last seven years, said Andy Glenn, who is based in North Miami. He said about 95 percent of them are settled.
“This is a problem all over,” he said. The firm currently has a case in Camden, N.J., involving 180 officers and another in East Orange, N.J., where 53 officers in a class of 300 have opted-in so far.
Both have “similar issues to the (Berkeley County) case,” he said.
Any Berkeley County officer who is owed overtime in the last three years can join the lawsuit.
On Thursday, Deputy Scott Cook, also a member of the canine unit, joined the suit.
The Fair Labor Standards Act requires departments to pay the canine handler maintenance pay in the form of time or money to care for that dog, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The county’s practices violated the Act and the S.C. Payment of Wages Act, according to the suit.
The city of Charleston, for instance, pays handlers an hour a day to care for their dogs.
North Charleston and Charleston County pay handlers an additional 3½ hours a week. All three said they also pay for the food, vet bills, kennels and supplies for the handler, including cleaning supplies. Berkeley County has paid some costs associated with the dogs, such as food and veterinarian bills.
The suit also seeks back pay for overtime and holidays.
As a deputy, Blakely worked fluctuating hours, but was entitled to overtime after working 171 hours in a 28-day period. He regularly worked overtime, but was “rarely properly compensated for those hours,” according to the suit. He also was not paid extra for working holidays.
The suit alleges the county did not keep accurate records and required Blakely and others to work “off the clock,” taking deductions from their paychecks “for improper purpose, upon false pretenses, and without providing proper written notice.”
The suit claims the county’s failure to pay employees fairly was “knowing, willful, intentional and done in bad faith.”
“It’s too early to make any comments other than to say that they are law enforcement officers and we rely upon them to protect us, but this lawsuit is about protecting them and making sure that they have been paid properly under federal and state laws,” Mullaney said.
Blakely did not return phone calls to his office.
He gained national attention after a traffic stop in August 2007 of Egyptians Youssef Megahed and Ahmed Mohamed, University of South Florida students who were caught with what police say were pipe bombs near the Naval Weapons Station.
His LinkedIn profile says he has made hundreds of felony arrests since becoming a patrol deputy in 2005 and has received several law enforcement-related awards, including being recognized by the National Criminal Enforcement Association for the most recovered occupied stolen vehicles by a patrol officer in 2012 and 2013.