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A federal appeals court has removed the Charles County Board of Education, Superintendent James E. Richmond and two assistant superintendents as defendants in a class-action lawsuit filed by county bus drivers and attendants claiming years of unpaid wages and overtime.

The decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturns a previous district court ruling that the board, Richmond and Assistant Superintendents Keith Hettel and Charles Wineland could not claim immunity under the 11th Amendment, which reaffirms states’ sovereign immunity and generally protects them from suits in federal court.

The lawsuit remains active, with bus contractors Keller Transportation in Waldorf, Koch Trucking in La Plata and H&H Bus Service in Bryans Road the remaining defendants.

“I think we knew all along that it was a misplaced lawsuit. We are very happy with the results,” said board chairwoman Roberta S. Wise.

The lawsuit claims that for three years, the county’s bus drivers were paid according to estimates of how much time they worked rather than for the actual hours they spent on the job, including the time they spent stuck in traffic, waiting out weather delays, or fueling and cleaning their buses.

Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, hourly workers are entitled to wages for each hour they work, including “time and one-half” overtime wages for each hour worked beyond a standard 40-hour work week.

The board “mandated and enforced policies and practices to falsely and erroneously prevent application of the law” and “intentionally misled its contractors, associates, and employees to ensure that the federal and state laws and regulations were not followed and unilaterally mandated that the law be substituted with [its] own employment and pay procedures,” the lawsuit states.

The board’s “control was so absolute that it also unilaterally determined that the FLSA did not apply to bus drivers and bus contractors,” the lawsuit states.

The school system had asked for the case to be dismissed on several grounds, including its claimed immunity under the 11th Amendment.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland ruled that a state statute specifying that local education boards “may not raise the defense of sovereign immunity to any claim of $100,000 or less” applied to FLSA claims.

The circuit court disagreed, ruling that the state intended for the statute to apply only in tort cases and that the board’s immunity remained intact.

Crofton attorney Scott Conwell, who is representing the plaintiffs, said his clients will be requesting a rehearing on the grounds that the circuit court’s decision conflicts with its January 2012 ruling in a similar case involving the Prince George’s County school system.

“We think its previous decision was just fine,” Conwell said, noting that it dealt with “this exact same issue.”

In that case, the circuit court noted that the Maryland Court of Appeals had in 2009 determined the state statute “was entirely unequivocal, leaving no doubt that the provision was meant to waive all aspects of sovereign immunity (up to $100,000).”

“That’s about as on point as you get,” Conwell said. “There’s been no change to the statute [since 2012], so there should be no change to the opinion.”

Conwell also said that the circuit court concluded that the statute applied only to tort cases by “hypothesizing” the Maryland legislature’s intent when the law was originally passed. He plans to ask that the state appeals court be allowed to weigh in on the matter.

The lawsuit postulates a shift lasting from 5:20 a.m. until 5:05 p.m. as the “typical workday” for a full-time county bus driver, resulting in a 58.75-hour workweek and 18.75 hours of overtime.

It estimates that the bus contractors and, by extension, the school board failed to pay each of the county’s estimated 287 bus drivers $53,460 in earned wages over a three-year period, entitling them each to $106,920 under the FLSA, which states that underpaid workers are entitled to double wages. Under state law, the damages would triple.

In total, the lawsuit claims estimated damages of $10.2 million per year under federal law and $15.3 million per year under state law.

About 40 bus drivers and attendants are listed as plaintiffs in the suit, Conwell said.

jnewman@somdnews.com