Magistrate mulls no contact' rule in schools' overtime case

By By Sheila Blackmon/The Meridian Star
Nov. 28, 2000
Attorneys for 31 school districts in Mississippi's Southern District are expected to meet Thursday with U.S. Magistrate John Roper to find out if school officials will be allowed to negotiate with employees owed overtime wages.
Attorney John Compton, who serves the Lauderdale County School District and Meridian Public School District, will be attending the 10:30 a.m. meeting in Hattiesburg. The ruling may not come at that meeting, but Compton said he expects it will.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Eugene Bogan handed down a ruling earlier this month barring Northern District school officials from contacting their employees.
Attorneys Sam Brand Jr. and Mike Espy visited Meridian in late September to explain the ongoing lawsuit and tell potential plaintiffs how to file claims. They said many school district officials may be violating the Fair Labor Standards Act in cases where uncertified employees serve dual roles, such as cafeteria workers who double as bus drivers.
He said Meridian and Lauderdale County officials have identified employees they owe overtime and have paid most of them.
Liquidated damages are similar in nature to punitive damages, but unlike punitive damages which are limitless liquidated damages are normally a set amount. In this case that amount is up to the amount of the wages owed, Compton said.
The MPS district initially had four plaintiffs in the lawsuit. There are now an additional 10 who have joined for a total of 14. Eight employees who have not filed claims were identified and paid a total of $11,000. District officials are in the process of getting more employees paid. Compton said he thinks there are no more than 10 added employees.
Lauderdale County started with three plaintiffs. Six more filed claims for a total of nine plaintiffs in the lawsuit. As of Nov. 6, Lauderdale County had paid out almost $48,000 to 31 employees, but West Lauderdale and part of Southeast schools employees weren't included at that point, Compton said.
A no-contact ruling wouldn't affect those already paid, but Compton said it would affect district officials' negotiations with the additional employees they are trying to pay.
The wages are coming out of both districts' fund balances, money held over each year mandated by the State Department of Education as a type of savings account for emergencies after expenses are paid.
Compton said right now, district officials aren't having to cut budgets anywhere else to pay the owed wages, but that doesn't mean the districts won't hurt.
If Roper hands down the no-contact ruling, Compton said it could be March before district officials can contact employees because they won't be able to get the lists of names and addresses to the plaintiffs' lawyers at least until the first of the year.
Sheila Blackmon is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. E-mail her at sblackmon@meridianstar.com.

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