Billings cops win wage suit, city told to pay $2.7 million

The city of Billings has been ordered to pay just under $2 million in back wages and penalties to 142 active-duty and retired police officers in a wage dispute going back to 2009.

District Court Judge Brenda Gilbert of Livingston, in an order issued Thursday, said the city must also pay roughly $650,000 in attorneys’ fees and nearly $126,000 in incidental costs associated with the years-long lawsuit.

The total bill against the city comes to a little more than $2.7 million. In 2007, the city lost a wage dispute with its firefighters and ultimately paid a settlement of $4.3 million.

Randy Bishop, one of two attorneys representing the firefighters, said the city has already indicated it will appeal the ruling. City officials could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.

Bishop said this lawsuit could have been settled for much less money if the city had recognized what it was told by two judges in the case—one judge retired during the progress of the lawsuit and was replaced by Gilbert—that it had violated the plain language of its contract with police officers.

“I feel bad for the taxpayers because they lost an extra million bucks because the city was stubborn,” Bishop said.

The suit was filed in January 2009 by 28 police officers who said the city had underpaid them for years by incorrectly calculating their longevity pay. The case started with Ernie Watters, who has since retired from the department with the rank of detective, and who went to Bishop to ask him about what appeared to be chronic underpayments to him and other officers.

Bishop’s now-retired partner, Gene Jarussi, was one of the attorneys who sued the city on behalf of the firefighters. The other attorney in that case, Lawrence Anderson of Great Falls, joined Bishop on the police officers’ lawsuit.

The city was represented by three private attorneys, W. Anderson Forsythe, Afton Ball and Emily Jones.

The non-jury trial was moved to Livingston because Watters is married to U.S. District Court Judge Susan Watters, who was then a Yellowstone County district judge, and all the other judges in the county recused themselves from the case because of that relationship.

In her order, Gilbert said the city’s failure to include longevity pay in determining regular hourly wages resulted in the underpayment of wages, overtime and retirement contributions and also affected payment of comp time, sick time and vacation time.

She said that every police officer “who had not left the employment of the City through resignation or termination more than six months prior to” the filing of the lawsuit “is entitled to recover unpaid wages looking back eight years from the date this action was filed.”

The city was ordered to pay past wages and benefits totaling $932,960.90, based on the calculations of CPA John Myers, who was hired by the plaintiffs. The judge also noted that the plaintiffs incurred “substantial costs” because the city refused to undertake any calculations of past-due wages and benefits.

The city later challenged the amount of time and expense incurred by the CPA, but Gilbert said that challenge “appears disingenuous under the circumstances and is expressly rejected.”

The city was also assessed a fine of 110 percent of the unpaid wages, or $1,026,256.99, which will also go to the officers based on years of service and other considerations.

When the city lost its lawsuit with the firefighters, it was assessed a penalty of only 15 percent. But state law calls for the maximum penalty of 110 percent “if the employer has previously violated similar wage and hour statutes within three years prior to the date of filing the wage claim.”

Gilbert cited the city’s failure to properly compensate its firefighters in imposing the maximum penalty. In the case of the firefighters, as with the police, she ruled, the city “has continually failed to comport with Montana’s wage laws.”

“Given these facts,” she said, “the City’s argument that it has not engaged in similar conduct within three years of Plaintiffs’ claim must be rejected.”

Gilbert also awarded attorney’s fees of $653,072.63 and plaintiffs’ miscellaneous costs of $125,854.60.

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