Police Dept. overtime challenge is rebuffed; Supreme Court refuses to reopen debate over Congress' role in dispute


WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court refused yesterday to reopen a constitutional dispute over Congress' power to require overtime pay for state and local government employees, rebuffing a challenge by the Baltimore Police Department.

The justices' action did not end the dispute between the city and the Fraternal Order of Police. The case will return to lower courts for a trial on still-open issues, though officials at the union local, Lodge 3, raised the prospect of an out-of-court settlement.

The city has been sued by 287 present and former police sergeants and lieutenants, who argue that they are entitled to overtime pay under federal wage law. They argue that they are not managers or supervisors and therefore are not exempt from the overtime-pay requirement.

In the first of two stages of their court challenge, the sergeants and lieutenants have withstood an argument by the city that it is unconstitutional for Congress to control the salaries of state and local government employees.

The Police Department's appeal urged the Supreme Court to reconsider its 1985 ruling upholding Congress' authority to pass laws that regulate the pay and work hours of state and municipal workers.

Officials of Baltimore and other local governments were optimistic that the court might return to the constitutional issue, after a series of decisions that struck down or cast doubt on Congress' authority to pass laws that intrude on states and localities.

The Baltimore Police Department's appeal marked the second time that a Maryland local government had failed to revive the constitutional issue. The court rejected a similar appeal in 1998 by Anne Arundel County involving the county's firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

Anne Arundel has paid nearly $2.8 million in overtime to those firefighters and is involved in another dispute over overtime pay. That county and Prince George's County joined the Baltimore Police Department in urging the Supreme Court to reconsider the constitutional issue.

The justices gave no explanation for refusing to do so.

Officer Gary McLhinney, president of FOP Lodge 3, interpreted the court's action as a victory for the police officers. The city, he said, "could have settled this case years ago and saved the taxpayers a lot of money."

McLhinney said he expects settlement discussions "any day. Obviously, this puts us in a strong position. We've won every step of the way."

Baltimore City Solicitor Otho M. Thompson said the city was "prepared to go back and try the case on its merits." The city has hired a private law firm, Arter & Haddsen of Washington, to handle the case. Thompson said that was done because "the case is important. We still have issues we believe we can win on."

The city has spent more than $1.3 million defending itself against the sergeants' and lieutenants' lawsuit, which has been pending in the courts for seven years.

The officers are seeking overtime retroactive to 1989. There is no estimate of how much the city would have to pay the officers if it ultimately lost or settled the case.

Senior U.S. District Judge Walter E. Black Jr. of Baltimore ruled that a trial must determine whether the officers' primary duties are managerial, as well as other issues. He asked the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to resolve four legal questions, including the constitutionality of applying the federal law on overtime pay to a city police department.

A year ago, the appeals court upheld the constitutionality of the law and rejected other challenges the Police Department had made to Labor Department regulations that govern overtime pay.

Pub Date: 10/05/99

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