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Judge bars contact with potential litigants in overtime lawsuit

By By Sheila Blackmon/The Meridian Star
Dec. 12, 2000
Lawyers and public school officials have been barred from contacting employees who may be affected by a class-action lawsuit involving overtime compensation but school officials are allowed to pay the wages they owe those employees.
U.S. Magistrate Judge John Roper and U.S. District Court Judge Walter Gex of Mississippi's Southern District handed down the court order containing these instructions last week.
Attorney John Compton, who represents Meridian and Lauderdale County schools, said the order is "not as broad" as a similar one issued in the Northern District last month by U.S. Magistrate Eugene Bogen.
The lawsuit involves non-exempt school employees who serve dual roles such as bus drivers who also work in the cafeteria and are being paid regular wages for each job rather than being paid overtime wages when their total hours exceed 40 in a week's time.
Nine Lauderdale County employees and 17 Meridian employees have joined the lawsuit.
Compton said he doesn't know how much money has been paid out of Meridian's funds so far. By late November, eight employees had been paid a total of $11,000.
Since Nov. 6, Lauderdale County's total has jumped from $48,000 to a figure "approaching $100,000," Compton said. The $48,000 was paid to 31 employees, but Compton said he doesn't know how many additional employees have been paid in each district.
Compton said paying owed wages and reaching a settlement agreement are not equivalent actions.
In a settlement agreement, the U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour officials audit the school district, signing off on payroll documents. The employee signs a settlement agreement.
When school officials pay an employee back wages, the employee signs a receipt, but the employee can still join the lawsuit. If the employee wins, the paid wages are subtracted from the total the court determines the employee is owed, Compton said.
He said the order prohibits employees' attorneys from directly contacting eligible employees who haven't joined the lawsuit. It also stops them from contacting those employees through the media.
Compton said school officials must give employees' lawyers, by Jan. 2, the names and addresses of all non-exempt employees who worked for the districts in the last three years.
The judges will then approve a notice to be sent to those employees telling them who to contact and how to join the lawsuit. They have until March 1 to join. Meridian and Lauderdale County school officials continue to pay employees who haven't joined or consented to join the lawsuit, Compton said.
Compton said Roper will oversee the cases until they are ready for trial, then Gex will preside.
Sheila Blackmon is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. E-mail her at sblackmon@themeridianstar.com.