NC magistrates sue state claiming breach of contract for frozen salaries

ablythe@newsobserver.comMay 15, 2014 

— Dozens of North Carolina magistrates have sued Gov. Pat McCrory, his budget officer Art Pope, state Treasurer Janet Cowell and others, contending that a state freeze of their pay since 2009 constitutes a contractual breach.

Forty magistrates filed a lawsuit in Burke County this week, arguing that for each monthly pay period during the past five years, the state has reneged on promises made when they signed on for their jobs. Steven Storch, a Durham magistrate, is the only plaintiff from the Triangle listed.

North Carolina statute provides the pay schedule for magistrates based upon the number of years in the position. The statute calls for a pay increase for every two years of full-time employment – going from entry level at $33,025 to the sixth step of $55,901.

In 2009, when the economy took a dive into a recession, magistrates accepted pay hits but also hoped that as revenues improved, their pay would pick up again.

W. Scott Jones, one of the Asheville attorneys representing the magistrates, said the complaint at the core of the lawsuit is simple.

“The magistrates did the work they were contracted to do, and then the state did not pay them what they contracted to pay them,” Jones said. “If I hire someone on Monday and tell them I will pay them $100 a day to work in my office, then I will owe them $500 on Friday.”

A McCrory spokesman said Thursday that the governor’s proposed budget attempts to address the magistrates’ complaints.

“The governor’s budget proposal is a step toward resolving not only these magistrates’ concerns, but other state employees and teachers across the state,” Ryan Tronovitch, McCrory’s deputy communications director, said in an email.

The attorneys are seeking “class-action” status, which means all magistrates across North Carolina could be a party of any action.

They are seeking back pay, plus interest. Their retirement benefits are based on a formula that takes an average of their highest paid years.

Magistrates in North Carolina are judicial officers of the District Court tasked with handling certain criminal and civil matters. Magistrates issue warrants and set bail. They can accept guilty pleas and payments of fines and court costs in many traffic cases and other misdemeanors.

They are appointed to two-year terms by senior resident Superior Court judges; the chief District Court judge sets their work schedule.

Eric Duckworth, a magistrate in Burke County, says he joined the suit because “a promise is a promise.” A former law enforcement officer with the Burke County Sheriff’s Office and a city police department, Duckworth said he gave up his career and retirement benefits to become a magistrate.

As a magistrate, Duckworth and his co-workers work holidays, nights and often when they are sick. Someone has to be available seven days a week, 365 days a year, he said.

Unlike other state employees, the magistrates do not accrue vacation time or sick time, Duckworth said.

“Our concerns have been expressed through the years,” Duckworth said. “We did this now, because it was just at the point where it was ‘now or never.’”

Duckworth said news earlier this year about some state employees being in line for pay raises ranging from 4 to 10 percent irked magistrates. They were not on the list, yet their pay had been frozen for years.

Not only do those pay freezes have an immediate impact on the magistrates, the lawsuit contends, but their retirement benefits are also based on a state formula calculating an average of the high years.

Magistrates, deputy clerks and assistant clerks not eligible to receive the one salary-step increase will get a $1,000 salary and benefit increase, according to the governor’s proposed spending plan.

Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, was in office for several of the years in question. McCrory was sworn in to office in January 2013.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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