Former employees sue Gwinnett medical examiner alleging unpaid overtime

Gwinnett County Medical Examiner Carol Terry during a Friday press conference warns of the dangers of fentanyl-laced street drugs. Her office has encountered an uptick in fentanyl-related deaths in recent years. (Tyler Wilkins / tyler.wilkins@ajc.com)

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Gwinnett County Medical Examiner Carol Terry during a Friday press conference warns of the dangers of fentanyl-laced street drugs. Her office has encountered an uptick in fentanyl-related deaths in recent years. (Tyler Wilkins / tyler.wilkins@ajc.com)

Seven former employees of Forensic Pathology Services, the contractor that serves as the medical examiner’s office for Gwinnett County, recently sued the firm and CEO Carol Terry in federal court, alleging they are owed unpaid overtime for on-call hours.

The employees — Robert Bumgardner, Leslie Bureta, Shannon Byers, Larry Leon Harrison, Ashley Bryant, Shannon Volkodav and Dallas Williams — were all forensic death investigators who left the office between 2019 and last year, according to the lawsuit filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

They worked weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. out of a Lawrenceville office, assisting Terry with death investigation reports, autopsies, evidence at death scenes and samples for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation laboratory, among other duties. Each investigator was also on call from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. two or three nights a week and all weekend twice a month, the lawsuit said.

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“Deaths happened not from 9 to 4,” said the investigators’ attorney, Jermaine “Jay” A. Walker of HKM Employment Attorneys in Atlanta. “They happened whenever they happened. ...They would get these calls at all types of hours in the night, sometimes two, three in the morning.”

The investigators ended up responding to death scenes during almost every on-call shift, according to the lawsuit. They were required to show up in uniform and in vehicles stocked with equipment, the lawsuit said. At scenes, the investigators took photos, performed body examinations, helped place bodies in bags and collected evidence. They were sometimes required to visit the homes of traffic fatality victims, the lawsuit said.

The investigators had fixed salaries that ranged from about $45,000 to a little more than $50,000 per year, Walker said. They did not receive overtime pay for on-call hours, according to the lawsuit, which claims they were not exempt from overtime wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

While on call, the investigators were required to keep their cell phones on at all times, stay close to Gwinnett County and refrain from drinking alcohol, the lawsuit said. They could not take weekend trips out of state and often turned down activities such as concerts, sporting events, weddings and baptisms because of the possibility work would call them away, according to the lawsuit.

“They were not able to freely use their time,” Walker said. “Because you get a salary, that doesn’t mean your employer gets to abuse your time and make you work around the clock a couple days a week.”

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Most of the employees went into the job unaware of the requirements for receiving overtime pay, but later began to sense something was wrong, Walker said. The lawsuit alleges an employee told Terry that the investigators were entitled to overtime pay but she and the firm disregarded the information and failed to research it adequately.

Terry and one of her attorneys, Michael Pugh of Thompson O’Brien Kappler & Nasuti, declined to comment on the lawsuit while it is pending.

Terry has worked since 2006 as Gwinnett’s chief medical examiner. The county is currently paying her firm almost $130,000 per month, according to a spokesman, or nearly $1.6 million annualized.

The investigators are seeking to be paid 1.5 times their hourly rate for every hour they were on call, damages in an amount equal to the back pay, interest, attorneys’ fees and costs. The amount they are claiming has not yet been determined, Walker said.