Sovereign Immunity and Successfully Pursuing an Unpaid Overtime Claim Against Your Public Employer in Georgia

Sometimes, an unpaid overtime case is relatively straightforward. Other times, though, unpaid overtime cases can involve many layers and complexities, including issues like an employer’s potential immunity from liability. Whether you are an employee or an employer, it is crucially important to understand all of your rights and responsibilities under the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. If you have questions or concerns about those rights or responsibilities, you should seek out knowledgeable answers from an experienced Atlanta unpaid overtime lawyer.

If you’re suing a state agency, sovereign immunity may be an argument you encounter. A recent overtime dispute between the state’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) and state troopers highlights a situation where workers were able to overcome a state agency’s assertion of immunity.

R.J. was one of several hundred men and women hired as state troopers with the Georgia State Patrol between 2014 and 2020. The DPS requires all of its state troopers to attend (and graduate from) a mandatory “trooper school.”

However, according to R.J.’s lawsuit, the DPS did not pay overtime compensation to the troopers in trooper school. This failure cost the troopers several thousand dollars each and almost $4.8 million as a group.

Because the employer was a public entity, though, it threw up a hurdle that workers pursuing overtime claims against private employers wouldn’t encounter: sovereign immunity. That doctrine shields states (and, by extension, state agencies) from civil liability in a broad array of situations unless the state expressly consents. (Some states, for example, have consented to allow state workers to sue their public employer for FLSA violations. Georgia is not one of those states.)

Fortunately for this state trooper, his legal team spotted and presented an alternate argument for recovery. While Georgia hasn’t waived sovereign immunity for damages incurred as a result of FLSA violations, the state has, in Article I of the state constitution, waived sovereign immunity in “any action ex contractu for the breach of any written contract… entered into by the state or its departments and agencies.”

That meant that the trooper could proceed and potentially recover an award of damages if he could establish that the DPS’s failure to pay overtime was not only a violation of the FLSA but also a violation of the terms and conditions of his employment contract with the state.

The employer tried several arguments to persuade the court that there was no contract, but they all failed.

The lack of a singular, formal written document did not necessarily doom the contract claim. The trooper presented a series of email exchanges and certain additional employment documents that, he argued, collectively represented a valid and enforceable contract. A review of Georgia law shows that other workers have, in the past, successfully relied upon similar evidence of a contract.

Evidence of a Contract Can Come in Various Forms

In 2006, the Court of Appeals wrote that a “valid written contract may be formed when there are multiple, signed, contemporaneous agreements between the parties which demonstrate their intent to enter into a binding contract and the individual documents, considered together, include all of the necessary terms of a contract.” Additionally, the state Georgia Supreme Court last year ruled that “email exchanges between state agencies and other individuals can create written contracts for the purposes of sovereign immunity waiver under the contract exception.”

Furthermore, the trooper’s status as an “at-will” employee did not automatically preclude his having a valid contract, either. In a 2017 opinion, the Supreme Court wrote that “an at-will employment relationship can give rise to certain contractual rights.”

As a result, the appeals court concluded that the trooper could pursue his claim.

Several legal factors can impact whether or not an employee is covered by the overtime provisions of the FLSA. These can include issues like employer immunity, exempt employee status, and more. If you have questions, we have answers. Reach out today to talk with the knowledgeable Atlanta unpaid overtime attorneys at the law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert, where our helpful team will provide you with the information and legal assistance you need. Contact us through this website or at 404-873-8048 to schedule a consultation today.

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