CLEARWATER — The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office will not have to pay jail deputies who were seeking back pay for time they said they worked during meal breaks.
On Wednesday a jury found the agency was not liable in a class-action lawsuit representing roughly 1,000 jail deputies. The verdict came seven years after the lawsuit was filed in 2006.
The civil trial began July 15 and included testimony by two former Pinellas sheriffs, retired and current detention deputies and supervisors, and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. The jury of three men and three women deliberated for more than four hours.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that detention deputies worked during unpaid 30-minute meal breaks. Attorneys representing the Sheriff's Office said deputies were properly paid, adding that there was no contract saying deputies would be paid for meal breaks.
But during closing arguments Wednesday, Wil Florin, the plaintiff's attorney, said a contract can be an implied or written agreement, referring to Sheriff's Office documents presented throughout the trial, including a 1989 memo that refers to meal breaks. He also mentioned the testimonies of former sheriffs Everett Rice and Jim Coats, who said there was an agreement to pay deputies for all hours worked.
"There are not 1,000 deputies in this courtroom today, but I can assure you there are 1,000 deputies waiting on your verdict," Florin told the jury. "The question is whether they were fully compensated, not whether they were partially compensated."
Throughout the trial, the sheriff's attorneys said detention deputies were allowed to leave the facility to eat, use the on-site gym or sleep in their cars during their breaks. But none of the jail employees who testified, except one corporal, said they left their posts, Florin said.
"These people stayed at their duty posts because they've got pride and integrity, and that's what the job called for," plaintiff attorney Tommy Roebig said. "This isn't Walmart. This is a locked-down, serious facility."
Sheriff's attorney Rich McCrea told the jury that the testimonies they should consider the most were by witnesses who "have no interest in this case one way or the other." They included retired Sheriff's Office employees, who testified that deputies did use the gym and leave the facility during meal breaks.
Upon hearing the verdict, Gualtieri said he was "ecstatic."
"We treat our employees right. We're doing the right thing, and this of course confirms that," he said. "I knew we did nothing wrong. If we do something wrong, I'll be the first one to step up."