Berkeley County Council on Monday agreed to a $285,000 settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought last year by a deputy sheriff who said he wasn't paid overtime for taking care of his police dog or for working holidays and that deputies were forced to "work off the clock."
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 2013 alleging the county knowingly did not pay him and other officers for some regular work hours and overtime.
A member of the canine unit since 2008, Blakely also sought payment for time spent "feeding, watering, grooming, bathing, exercising, cleaning up after, training and bonding" with his dog.
The suit was filed as a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act in federal court, according to Marybeth Mullaney, a Mount Pleasant attorney who represented Blakely.
Any Berkeley County deputy who was owed overtime in the past three years could have opted to join the suit. Seven other deputies, including some canine officers and some narcotics officers, opted in, Mullaney said.
The county was represented by the national labor and employment law firm Fisher and Phillips.
The two sides agreed to the settlement after mediation on July 2, but council had to agree to it before it could be presented to District Judge Patrick Michael Duffy for approval.
The settlement is $264,931, split between back wages and damages, plus FICA taxes, retirement and workers compensation, which could bring the total up to $285,000. The money will come from the county's general fund balance.
"My clients are pleased that the county worked with us to resolve this matter and they look forward to continuing to do what they love, which is serving the citizens of Berkeley County," Mullaney said. "It was not an easy thing for them to step forward, but they did so with the hope of making positive changes for all similarly situated county employees."
The deputies were entitled to overtime after working 171 hours in a 28-day period but were "rarely properly compensated for those hours," according to the suit. They also were not paid extra for working holidays.
The suit alleged the county did not keep accurate records and required deputies 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."
FLSA requires departments to pay canine handlers maintenance pay in the form of time or money to care for their dogs, 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.
County Attorney Nicole Scott Ewing and George A. Reeves III of Fisher and Phillips were unavailable Tuesday.
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.
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