If there’s one statute you’d think the U.S. Department of Labor would get right, it’s the Fair Labor Standards Act. After all, it’s practically the agency’s flagship law. Nonetheless, the Department of Labor along with 22 other agencies together paid more than $6 million last year in a partial settlement of a long-running class action brought by federal workers in the Court of Federal Claims.
The payments are detailed in the Judgment Fund, an open-ended account that federal agencies draw from to pay court judgments and settle cases.
In a series of consolidated cases, 14,000 current and former ­federal law enforcement officers filed suit between 1990 and 1995, arguing that their agencies had incorrectly classified their positions as exempt from overtime provisions. The cases have settled piecemeal — in 2011, 24 agencies shelled out $36.7 million in settlements. The plaintiffs, who are represented by Jules Bernstein of Bernstein & Lipsett, said in court papers that they are close to a global settlement with the government. Bernstein and the Department of Labor did not return calls seeking comment.
It wasn’t the government’s only costly Fair Labor Standards Act settlement. The Department of Veterans Affairs requested $74 million from the Judgment Fund in November to settle claims by a class of 44,000 health care specialists who typically worked weekends or nights. When the workers took leave, however, their pay was not commensurate with their usual rate, which included a premium for off-hours.
"It took a lot of time and effort to get the case settled," said DLA Piper partner Robert Brownlie, who represented the plaintiffs along with Ira Lechner of Katz & Ranzman. "Our clients were pleased with the result." Lechner said, "V.A. just refused to abide by the law established in 1988 that federal employees on paid leave are entitled to get the same amount on leave as when they’re working."
Cabinet-level agencies in 2012 also settled more than 100 individual suits brought by government workers alleging discrimination based on race, sex, age or disability. Compensatory damages in employment discrimination suits against the federal government are capped at $300,000 and there are no punitive damages, so the awards are all relatively modest.
The biggest payment in 2012 — $1 million — went to a white Transportation Security Administration screener who complained that his black supervisors discriminated and retaliated against him. He also alleged disability discrimination based on a traumatic brain injury that limited his ability to concentrate and his short-term memory. The government settled the case in October.
The second-biggest payment was for $963,589, and was awarded by Magistrate Judge John Facciola of U.S. District Court for the District of Colum­bia, who issued a scathing opinion against the Department of Labor after a bench trial.
An agency lawyer named Janet Schmidt who specialized in pension law had an intestinal disease with symptoms including chronic and uncontrollable diarrhea and pain. As a reasonable accommodation, she was allowed to work from home, but when she got a new supervisor, he demanded to see medical records that detailed her pelvic and rectal exams and ordered her to work in the office 15 hours a week.
Facciola found that the supervisor "made unreasonable demands that were not based on any business need" and that "the entire process…was unnecessary, unjustified, and vindictive." The supervisor’s behavior, the judge said, was "mean-spirited" and "to be blunt, indefensible" and the Labor Department’s justification for its actions was "insincere and…motivated by a vindictive desire to retaliate against [Schmidt]."
In awarding Schmidt, who was represented by Robert C. Seldon & Associates, the $300,000 maximum for compensatory damages, Facciola wrote that "I would find her entitled to $300,000 on each count, had any of those counts been the only count on which she preceded to trial."
Contact Jenna Greene at firstname.lastname@example.org.