A federal judge for the Third Circuit Appeals Court recently vacated a ruling from a lower District Court that denied overtime pay to 3 Schuylkill County Deputy Coroners.
In an opinion filed on Aug. 30, US Appeals Court Judge Thomas Ambro vacated a ruling from federal District Court that determined 3 Schuylkill County Deputy Coroners were exempt from protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) because they were staff of an elected official but not employees of the county government.
That ruling from the District Court let Schuylkill County off the hook for paying overtime to 3 Deputy Coroners. Ambro’s opinion discards that ruling because, as he writes, more work is needed to determine if those 3 Deputy Coroners – Scott Clews, Joseph Pothering, and Debra Detweiler – should be covered by FLSA.
“We vacate the District Court’s order granting summary judgement and remand for further proceedings,” Ambro writes.
So, the ruling doesn’t necessarily mean those 3 Deputy Coroners are entitled to that pay.
Appeals Court Vacates Ruling on Schuylkill County Deputy Coroner Overtime Pay
The original lawsuit was filed against Schuylkill County government by Clews, Pothering, and Detweiler claiming a violation of the FLSA. They also claimed that the county fired them in retaliation for seeking overtime pay. The lawsuit was filed in Schuylkill County Court of Common Pleas back in November 2017 but the case was moved to federal District Court.
A federal District Court ruled the County was in the right for denying these 3 their overtime pay. But in Ambro’s opinion vacating that ruling, he believes that decision may be premature.
The 3 Deputy Coroners in this lawsuit argued their appeals case before the Third Circuit back on March 10.
Schuylkill County Deputy Coroners are paid a flat rate for their work, much like a freelancer or independent contractor. That rate was paid no matter how much time they spent on an individual case.
“Employees of state and local governments are typically protected by federal employment laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act. But not so for the personal staff of elected officials,” Ambro writes. “The District Court granted summary judgement in favor of the County, concluding that all three Plaintiffs were personal staff of the County’s elected Coroner and thus cannot bring an FLSA claim.
“While we agree with the Court that the County did not forfeit the personal-staff-exception argument, granting summary judgement was not called for, as there are still material factual disputes concerning the exception’s applicability to the Plaintiffs. Hence, we vacate its decision and remand for further proceedings.”
In their appeal to the Third Circuit Court, the Plaintiff Deputy Coroners argued two points from the District Court ruling:
- They contend the County forfeited its personal-staff-exception argument because they failed to address it in their original complaint.
- And even if the County didn’t forfeit that argument, the District Court was wrong to grant it judgement because there are “genuine disputes of material fact with respect to applying the personal staff exception.”
In his opinion, citing Supreme Court precedence, the “County properly preserved (the FLSA) defense.”
However, the question of whether these and other Deputy Coroners could be considered personal staff of the Coroner, David Moylan, is unclear. Ambro says in his opinion that the record from District Court doesn’t clearly show that these Deputy Coroners had a close working relationship with Moylan. And Ambro suggests that with as many as 20 Deputy Coroners, it’s hard to believe Moylan worked closely with all of them.
“We are not convinced that the Deputy Coroners had a sufficiently close working relationship with Dr. Moylan to be considered his personal staff,” he writes, contrary to the District Court ruling. The Circuit Court also isn’t convinced other factors that equal a person being considered “personal staff” of an elected official were met, like they were personally accountable to Moylan and that they were directly below him in the chain of command at the Coroner’s office.
“We see little to conclude that the Coroner exercises the required amount of control over the Deputy Coroners for them to be his personal staff,” Ambro continues. “The personal staff exception is meant to carve out from the FLSA’s protections those who work closely with an elected official in a sensitive position of trust and confidence and over whom the official exercises personal control.
“In this case, we cannot conclude that the Deputy Coroners in Schuylkill County fall under the personal staff exceptions based on undisputed facts.”