CLEARWATER — Three current and former Pinellas County sheriffs testified this week in a trial involving a class-action lawsuit against the Sheriff's Office filed by deputies who have worked at the county jail.
The 2006 lawsuit represents as many as 1,000 jail deputies who say they worked during unpaid 30-minute meal breaks. They are seeking back pay.
Attorneys presented Sheriff's Office documents throughout the week, including a March 1989 memo that states meal breaks must be at least 30 minutes and relieve deputies of all duties.
But Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and former sheriffs Everett Rice and Jim Coats testified that the memos and general orders are not agreements or contracts.
"The general orders that we have are guidelines. They are subject to interpretation," Gualtieri testified Friday. "That's all they are ever going to be and that's all they are."
Attorneys also presented a personnel rule issued in 2004 that states employees have two years to file a claim if they were underpaid. But when the Sheriff's Office merged and condensed general orders in 2010, that section was removed — four years after the lawsuit was filed. At the time, Gualtieri was general counsel and chief deputy under Coats.
The provision, he testified, was removed because it was "redundant" to include since the two-year limit is state law.
Wil Florin, attorney for the plaintiffs, questioned him about how deputies could be completely relieved of work during breaks if their radios remain on and if they ate inside the jail's dining hall, served by inmates.
Deputies who go on break, Gualtieri said, are replaced by others. Gualtieri said he often sees detention deputies eating at nearby restaurants where radios don't work. Deputies on break, he added, are also free to sleep in their cars or use the on-site gym.
"We don't count on them to respond if something happens," he said. "When the person is gone, they're gone. But somebody is filling in for them."
Keeping their radios on during breaks, plaintiff attorneys argued, is a duty. But during his testimony, Rice, who served as sheriff from 1988 to 2004, said the Sheriff's Office never agreed to pay deputies for meal breaks if they kept their radios on.
Coats, sheriff from 2004 to 2011, agreed. He also testified that the 1989 memo was not a written agreement, but a guide for supervisors and employees.
Former and current Sheriff's Office employees also took the stand. Among them was a former detention deputy who testified his supervisor became upset when he complained that his meal break was interrupted.
Lt. Vincent Gibney, a jail supervisor, said employees "quite frequently" leave the jail during breaks or use the facility's break rooms. The radios, he added, are not considered an interruption.
"Everybody has a radio to stay connected," he said. "Just because they have a radio on doesn't mean they are doing anything active for the Sheriff's Office."
The trial is scheduled to resume next week. If the six-person jury rules in favor of the jail deputies, a separate jury in a later trial will decide how much they will be compensated.