Island County deputy’s guild lawsuit finally heads to trial

After five years, a lawsuit between Island County and the Island County Deputy Sheriff’s Guild is going to trial next week.

The disagreement over sick-leave pay has already cost the county far more than the original $22,000 in dispute. The judge in Skagit County Superior Court ruled last week that the county has to pay two deputies $12,900 in exemplary damages, as well as attorney’s fees that may top $75,000, for wrongful withholding of wages.

Oak Harbor attorney Chris Skinner, who represents the guild, argues that county officials are not using taxpayers’ dollars wisely in the handling of the case, which he said could have been settled years ago on very easy terms. Melanie Bacon, county human resources director, however, said the county doesn’t want to set a precedence by allowing the deputies to ignore long-established policy.

The complaint for improperly withheld wages, declaratory judgment and permanent injunction was filed against the county in 2012. The lawsuit names the guild and four deputies as plaintiffs.

A central question in the lawsuit is whether the deputies can collect both worker’s compensation and sick leave if the total amount surpasses their regular pay.

Bacon explained that employees injured on the job receive time-loss compensation from the state Department of Labor and Industries (or L&I) that amounts to about 60 percent of their pay. The county pays them full-time sick leave while they are out, but they are expected to pay back the amount they get from worker’s comp; that amount of sick leave goes back into their account, she said.

“They don’t get to make more money when they’re off work than when they are working,” she said, explaining that the deputies collected as much as 160 percent of their pay. “To us it would have been a gift of public funds.”

The deputies who were injured in the line of duty felt they didn’t have to pay the county back because the L&I payments were benefits that can’t be treated as wages, Skinner explained. He questions whether the county’s motivation is really to uphold the policy when the guild offered a settlement in which the policy would be clarified in the bargaining agreement.

Bacon said the county has offered many settlements over the years, but the guild refused. Skinner said none of the offers were acceptable.

Also at issue is how the county collected some of the disputed wages. At the hearing last week, the judge agreed with the guild’s argument that the county didn’t follow law or proper procedure when it withheld wages from two deputies. The county withheld an entire paycheck from one deputy and nearly a full paycheck from another, even though the law says the county can’t withhold more than 5 percent per paycheck, Skinner said.

The county is represented by a deputy prosecutor from Kitsap County, which means the county has been paying hourly attorney’s fee for five years. Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said his office isn’t handling the case because of a potential conflict of interest.

The case has gone through arbitration, summary judgment hearings and innumerable other hearings. Both sides have won monetary judgments from the other side. The county lost in three summary judgment hearings and won in two.

“All that fussing around over what started out as a fairly nominal number,” Skinner said. “Someone is not paying attention to how the taxpayer’s money is being spent.”

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