County to fight deputies' lawsuit

A lawsuit filed by Fresno County sheriff's deputies is likely to grow, even as Fresno County's legal counsel vowed Tuesday to fight a case that could result in sheriff's deputies being paid for putting on their uniforms and protective gear before clocking in for work.

The lawsuit, filed by 71 deputies last month, contends that "it takes time to 'don and doff' uniforms and protective/safety gear ... integral and indispensable to the primary duties of law enforcement."

Gary Messing, the lawyer representing members of the Fresno County Deputy Sheriff's Association, said deputies also are seeking compensation for time spent traveling to stations across the county because they are required to log in with dispatchers when they get inside their patrol vehicles at their homes en route to work.

The case is based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of chicken processing plant employees.

They sued after their company refused to pay for "donning" protective gear before starting their shifts.

The deputies' lawsuit was discussed by the Fresno County Board of Supervisors during a closed session Tuesday.

While not revealing any of the supervisors' conversations because the issue involves litigation, Fresno County Counsel Dennis Marshall said he does not believe the county is violating the Fair Labor Standards Act.

"We will defend the lawsuit aggressively," Marshall said.

But Messing said the Supreme Court decision has direct applications to law enforcement.

He said the association, which has 500 members, worked with the county to settle the case but was unable to reach an agreement.

Deputy Jim Bewley, deputy sheriff's association president, said it takes 15 to 20 minutes a day for deputies to prepare before going to work in a county sheriff's vehicle.

"Once we don everything and we get in our cars, we are required to log on and travel ... to our work stations," Bewley said. "You are in uniform and in a vehicle, dispatch knows where you are being deployed because they know where you are. You are deterring crime because you are driving around."

Bewley said the list of deputies interested in joining the suit grew Tuesday by about a half-dozen. But he also said he has heard from people outside law enforcement who question the wisdom of the suit.

"The first reaction I got was, 'Aren't you guys being a little greedy?' " Bewley said.

But the law is on the books and the county is choosing to ignore it, he added.

Messing said deputies commuting in sheriff's vehicles are often looking out for DUI drivers and speeders and could be targeted by criminals.

"They are often dispatched to incidents or come up on things," he said.

"The reality is they are working as if they are on patrol and they have to be protecting themselves and drive with due care because they are driving a county vehicle."

The issue has been settled in other cases, including one that involves California Highway Patrol officers, Messing said.

The California Association of Highway Patrolmen last year received a stipend equal to 3.5% of their base pay to compensate for time spent on pre- and post-shift activities such as donning protective gear and inspecting weapons and vehicles, according to the state Department of Personnel Administration Web site.

Other deputies' associations have been considering the merits of filing similar cases.

Mike Motz, Madera County Deputy Sheriff's Association president, said his members have been talking about the issue but have taken no official position.

Madera County Sheriff John Anderson said counties may decide to no longer allow officers to take patrol vehicles home and require dressing in department locker rooms.

"Our policy is that we have a take-home car policy and they dress on their own time, but they are expected to respond to any calls we send them to, and the moment they do, they are on the clock," Anderson said.