Fulton County to pay $18 million to settle equal pay lawsuits

Fulton County will pay a whopping $18 million to settle lawsuits brought by hundreds of county employees who say they were shortchanged on pay, the workers’ attorney announced Monday.

The money will settle eight lawsuits from workers who say Fulton violated civil service rules that require equal pay for employees in the same job classification. Already, the county has paid out $5 million in the last 12 years because of disputes over pay disparities.

The latest settlement will give back pay to 343 current and former county attorneys, public defenders, assistant district attorneys, State Court solicitors, child advocates and sheriff’s deputies.

The litigation has dragged on for 12 years. Attorney A. Lee Parks, who represented the employees, said Fulton officials could have saved millions if they’d addressed the problem sooner. Instead, they continued to fight the litigation and the amount of back pay owed grew as the years passed.

“I don’t think they ever appreciated that it could grow to this size of a problem,” said Parks.

In the lawsuits, the county argued that pay raises were within the discretion of county officials.

“The settlement of these longstanding cases is the most efficient and economical resolution for the county and its employees,” interim County Attorney Jerolyn Ferrari said in a prepared statement. “It brings certainty, avoids additional costs and allows all parties to move forward.”

Greg Fann, executive director of the employees’ union, said he’s glad the affected employees will get their money.

“If they had done it right the first time, and the people would have gotten paid, we wouldn’t be in this position,” Fann said.

Parks said the pay problem began in 1997, when the commissioners gave attorneys in the County Attorney’s Office a 36 percent raise, or “premium pay.” Among other things, attorneys in that office represent the Board of Commissioners and handle civil litigation against the county. Commissioners did not give raises to the other employees who were in identical or similar job classification.

Parks said he also found pay disparities in the Information Technology and Sheriff’s Departments. He estimated that 50 to 60 employees got raises, while some colleagues were not given the premium pay.

In 2003, the IT employees won $400,000 from the county in arbitration. Last year, the county paid $4.6 million after judicial law clerks won a similar lawsuit.

Parks said he tried for years to convince county officials to settle the other lawsuits, but Fulton officials refused even as they were losing in court.

“They had off-ramps all through the 12 years. It made no sense,” he said. “All they had to do was just eliminate the premium pay.”

A jury trial for one of the pending lawsuits – brought by 88 public defenders – was set to begin Dec. 14. Back pay and other damages were accruing at more than $300,000 per month.

Parks said the parties reached a settlement of all the pending cases in a two-day mediation, followed by a month of almost daily negotiations. He credits a new Fulton leadership – including new commissioners, a new county manager and a new county attorney – for recognizing they needed to end the litigation.

In addition to the $18 million in back pay and attorneys’ fees, the county has agreed to pay $500,000 annually for future raises for employees who were denied the pay raises and to increase the pensions of 40 plaintiffs who have retired.

Parks estimated the total value of the payout at $21 million over the next five years. But he said the payout could have been substantially higher had the lawsuits continued to trial.