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Corrections officers’ verdict could hinge on appellate ruling

Scott Lauck//April 29, 2020//

Corrections officers’ verdict could hinge on appellate ruling

Scott Lauck//April 29, 2020//

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Missouri Supreme Court
Chief Justice George W. Draper III asks a question during argument held remotely April 22, 2020, while Supreme Court Clerk Betsy AuBuchon observes. (Photo courtesy of Beth Riggert/Missouri Supreme Court)

A recent federal appeals court ruling could be a critical component in whether a massive verdict on behalf of Missouri correctional officers is allowed to stand.

The Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments on April 22 in a $113.7 million verdict for officers who said they were denied compensation for pre- and post-shift duties. The case was the third-largest plaintiffs’ win of 2018, as tracked by Missouri Lawyers Media.

The class of about 13,000 corrections officers had alleged they were not paid for time they spent during security procedures, such as scanning their fingerprints, showing identification and passing through metal detectors, as well as getting updates from the previous shift’s officers. The class also argued that officers were expected to respond to prisoner safety incidents that might arise during those off-the-clock periods.

The Missouri Court of Appeals Western District affirmed the verdict last year. But, at the Missouri Attorney General’s Office’s request, the Supreme Court agreed to review the case on Feb. 4.

That same day, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in a factually similar case involving prison guards in New Mexico. In Aguilar v. Management & Training Corp., the federal appeals court said the guards’ pre- and post-shift activities were “integral and indispensable parts” of their jobs and were compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Although the 10th Circuit’s opinion is in no way binding on the Missouri Supreme Court, much of the April 22 argument involved the opinion’s potential applicability. Solicitor General John Sauer said the ruling was contrary to a great deal of other precedent and urged the Supreme Court not to follow it.

Activities such as going through a security check, Sauer argued, are not part of the Missouri guards’ main duties.

The Missouri Department of Corrections, he said, “employs its corrections officers to provide security against inmates. It doesn’t employ them to provide security against themselves.”

But Gary Burger of Burger Law in St. Louis, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the time his clients spent doing pre- and post-shift work was time in which they were not free to do what they pleased. He argued that just because they weren’t performing all of their guard duties during those times didn’t mean they weren’t doing their jobs at all.

“Mr. Sauer isn’t taking a deposition or trying a case right now, but he’s working,” Burger said.

The judges returned repeatedly to the Aguilar case. As Sauer noted a raft of other FLSA cases that had gone the other way, Judge Patricia Breckenridge asked if they were distinguishable because they involved different kinds of jobs.

“The nature of the work is different, and the Aguilar case is more similar in that it is prison employees,” she said.

Later, however, Judge Laura Denvir Stith asked just how different those other cases were, as many of them involved employees involved in some kind of public safety role.

“Why are prison guards different from police officers?” she asked. Burger responded that each case is very fact-specific and turns on how integral the pre- and post-shift duties are to the job.

The April 22 argument marked the Supreme Court’s second docket to be held remotely during the COVID-19 crisis, which has forced in-person hearings to be banned in most instances until at least May 15. Also that morning, the court heard a writ case involving whether a party can seek a change of venue after successfully requesting a change of judge.

The previous week, the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office has authority to seek a new trial for Lamar Johnson, who has spent 25 years in prison for a murder he claims he didn’t commit.

The case is Hootselle et al. v. Missouri Department of Corrections, SC98252.

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