Under the Dome

North Carolina magistrate suit gets class-action status

A Superior Court judge has agreed that dozens of North Carolina magistrates can move forward with a class-action lawsuit that contends a state pay freeze since 2009 constitutes a contractual breach.

Forty magistrates filed a lawsuit in Burke County against Gov. Pat McCrory, then-State Budget Director Art Pope, state Treasurer Janet Cowell and others in May, arguing that for each monthly pay period during the previous five years, the state reneged on promises made when the judicial officers signed on for their jobs.

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 revenue improved, their pay would pick up again.

W. Scott Jones, one of the Asheville attorneys representing the magistrates, described the core complaint as a contract dispute. The magistrates, he contends, were contracted to do work at a specific rate and then not paid that price.

Back pay, interest

Superior Court Judge Michael O’Foghludha issued an order Wednesday that gave class-action status to the lawsuit. That means all magistrates across North Carolina could be a party of the 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.

Several magistrates are part of another lawsuit making its way through state courts. After gay marriage became legal in the state, a lawsuit was filed challenging an edict from state court administrators that magistrates must perform same-sex marriages as part of their job.

Magistrates in North Carolina are judicial officers of the District Court tasked with handling certain criminal and civil matters. They 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.

Blythe: 919-836-4948;

Twitter: @AnneBlythe1