Pinellas County's sheriff and his two predecessors will be summoned to court this week for a trial that could cost the county millions of dollars.
It centers on an unlikely issue: lunch breaks.
Attorney Wil Florin says the class action lawsuit, which has worked its way through the court system since 2006, is about much more.
The lawsuit contends that roughly 1,000 deputies who have worked at the Pinellas County Jail since 2004 have been shortchanged because they get paid for eight hours per shift, but work 8.5 hours.
"It's going to be about life inside that jail and how the sheriff can't continue to take the position that these guys are not working the entire time they're in there," Florin said. "It's an environment unlike any other."
The lawsuit was filed in 2006 by a retired detention deputy, Douglas J. Morgan. He said deputies were required to show up for work half an hour before their shifts for a mandatory briefing. He said he and other deputies weren't being paid for that half hour.
The Sheriff's Office has said it does pay deputies for the briefing, but not for their half-hour lunch breaks, according to court records.
Most people probably don't get paid for lunch breaks. But Florin maintains that at the jail, lunch breaks are breaks in name only. Even on break, he said, deputies often have to listen to radios, keep an eye on inmates and be prepared to jump back into the job at any moment.
"There isn't such a thing as a break anytime when you're on the inside," Florin said. "If you go on break, you're not really on break."
Often, he said, "their break consists of somebody bringing their food to their post."
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri declined to speak about the pending lawsuit. The attorney handling the case did not return calls.
The trial, which starts Monday, is expected to last all week and part of the next. It seeks compensation for deputies over a nine-year period that covers all or part of the administrations of Gualtieri, and former sheriffs Jim Coats and Everett Rice.
If the Sheriff's Office wins the case, Pinellas County won't have to make a payout. But if it loses, the county could potentially have to pay millions in lost wages, interest and even adjustments to retirements. Sheriff's deputies currently earn from $41,284 to $67,143 per year, a spokeswoman said. About 750 deputies work at the jail.
The case is a class action lawsuit, and covers all the jail deputies who were affected by the pay policy during the nine-year period. It doesn't cover other employees or supervisors, unless they used to be deputies.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge John A. Schaefer initially ruled that for legal reasons, this case did not qualify as a class action suit. However the 2nd District Court of Appeal reversed that decision, clearing the way for trial.
Staff writer Laura C. Morel contributed to this report. Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232. Twitter: @ckruegertimes.