Judicial employees sue Fulton County for back pay

Fulton County government is facing another lawsuit related to how much it pays employees, two years after officials agreed to pay more than $20 million to workers who were shortchanged on their paychecks.

In the latest suit, employees of five Fulton County courts claim that they were unfairly kept out of the county’s new pay and classification system when it debuted in 2015. There are about 300 judicial workers who would be affected by the lawsuit, and payments could exceed $4 million.

The class action calls for Superior, State, Probate, Magistrate and Juvenile court employees to be moved to the new pay scale, which was approved after intentional pay disparities cost the county millions of dollars.

In the suit, filed Friday in Fulton County Superior Court, attorney Lee Parks said judicial department workers were initially given new salary ranges under the plan. But after a political dispute between county leaders and some court employees, the suit said, those judicial workers were not moved to the new, higher pay scales.

A Fulton County spokesperson said the county did not comment on pending litigation. But earlier this year, in a dispute about whether judicial employees should receive a living wage increase that other employees were getting, Fulton County Commissioner Bob Ellis said the court had opted out of the county’s payroll system.

“I’m empathetic to employees, but it was the court’s decision not to participate, ” said Ellis, who is now vice chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners.

The suit also cites the living wage increase, saying that judicial workers should have been included. There are about 70 employees who make less than $31,000 a year in the courts, and would have been eligible for living-wage increases.

Parks said county rules only allow for one pay and classification system for employees. By keeping judicial workers on the old system, and moving other county employees to a new one, the county is violating its own requirements, he said.

Parks said, employees are not getting equal pay for equal work. He estimated that Fulton would owe workers about $2 million a year in back pay since the new system was implemented at the end of 2015, plus interest, until judicial workers were put on the same system.

“They’re treating civil servants differently,” he said. “You can’t.”

In 2015, just before the new pay scales were implemented, Fulton leaders agreed pay $18 million to settle eight lawsuits claiming civil service rules were violated. In addition to back pay, the county paid attorneys fees and pension payments for workers who had already retired. The total cost was about $21 million, and Parks’ firm won that settlement.

In 2003, Information Technology employees won $400,000 from the county in arbitration after similar complaints. IT workers received $450,000 in another settlement last year, in a suit related to overtime pay. And in 2014, the county paid $4.6 million to judicial law clerks after they won a lawsuit about their own pay.

Because the new pay system is in place for non-judicial workers, Parks said he didn’t anticipate any more disagreements about pay, once this one had been settled. Going forward, he said, would be “smooth sailing” for the county.

“You can’t not include them,” he said of the judicial workers. “As the county is excused from many services, the courts and the jail system are the biggest thing they do. The justice system is the biggest piece of Fulton County now.”