Four Ravalli County Deputy Attorneys have filed a suit in District Court against Ravalli County over unpaid wages. The attorneys allege that their Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) payments have been withheld illegally. They argue that they should have been receiving the same COLA increase as every other county employee who is not bound under a collective bargaining agreement because they have never reached any agreement yet with the county as a bargaining unit.
Three of the attorneys filing suit, Daniel Browder, Thorin Geist and William Lower were founding members of the Ravalli Deputy County Attorney Association (RDCAA), formed by six members of the county attorney staff back in 2018. Plaintiff Korin Ziegler was also a member but recently left her job with the county in November to take a better paying job in Park County. All but Ziegler were founding members of the group that sought voluntary recognition as a collective bargaining unit from the Board of County Commissioners in 2018.
According to the allegations contained in the complaint, the commissioners denied the request “even though it is the policy of the state of Montana to encourage the practice and procedure of collective bargaining between public employers and their employees.”
The RDCAA then sought and received formal recognition from the Montana Board of Personnel Appeals in August 2018. They have been involved in ongoing negotiations with the county to arrive at some collective bargaining agreement since that time.
The complaint quotes from the County Employees Handbook: “Ravalli County employees who are not subject to a CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) will receive the COLA amount set by the BCC.” The attorneys argue that since they have no agreement with the county yet, they should be treated like every other employee.
Plaintiffs claim that under the previous county Human Resources director, they were awarded COLA increases, until this ended in October of 2019, after the Board of County Commissioners decided to grant a 4.88% COLA increase to other county employees but not the attorneys.
It states in the complaint that they notified the county about the discrepancy in pay. They sent a letter of complaint to the county on October 15 stating that they were not “subject to a CBA because no CBA had been agreed upon or executed.”
An attorney working for the county, Kathryn Mahe of Garlington, Lohn and Robinson in Missoula, responded for the county, arguing that the county was not required to pay RDCAA members the COLA increase because the RDCAA and the County were “in active negotiations, including negotiations regarding the applicability of the employee handbook, the entitlements to COLA, and wages in general.”
The lawsuit goes on to allege that the decision to withhold the COLA increase from the attorney’s paychecks was made without proper public notice and without notifying the plaintiffs that the COLA pay was being withheld.
“On information and belief, there is no record documenting the process of the county’s decision… not to pay plaintiff RDCAA members COLA pay increases,” it is alleged in the complaint.”
“If the decision to withhold the COLA from the plaintiffs was not made by a quorum of the BCC, then the Jon/Jane Doe(s) who made the decision had no authority to make a decision on behalf of the county, not to exercise the County government’s executive powers to instruct a County department to withhold the COLA increase from Plaintiffs’ paychecks. Such Decision, the instruction and subsequent action on that instruction were therefore in violation of the law and invalid,” states the complaint.
The attorneys request the court to award the unpaid wages and a penalty of 110% of all the unpaid wages; award attorney fees and costs; and issue an order invalidating the County’s decision and action to withhold the paychecks.
County Commission Chairman Chris Hoffman said that the commissioners were waiting to hear an assessment by the County Attorney.
“But it’s the first time I have ever heard of a county being sued by its own attorney,” said Hoffman.