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Former Pennsylvania Guards Settle FMLA Lawsuits for $110,000

by Derek Gilna

In March 2017, Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania settled two federal lawsuits filed by former guards who alleged violations of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In the first case, the county agreed to pay $90,000 to settle a suit brought by six guards – Allen Joyce, Matthew Besecker, William Ferrario, Anthony Mariano, Jeremy McClemens and Justin Kopa – and in the second it paid $20,000 to plaintiff Paul Sopinski.

According to the complaints in the two cases, the county committed multiple violations of FMLA, 29 U.S.C § 2601, and violated the Fourteenth Amendment under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. FMLA guarantees leave time to qualified employees to deal with certain medical-related issues for themselves or family members.

Despite these statutorily-guaranteed rights, one of the guards at the Lackawanna County Prison “began to observe numerous discriminatory and retaliatory comments graffitified on the walls of the Defendant’s premises including, but not limited to, ‘FMLA pussy,’ ‘FMLA: Fire My Lazy Ass,’ ‘losers have FMLA,’ ‘scumbag’ and ‘lazy,’” the complaint stated. “Said discriminatory and retaliatory remarks caused [the plaintiff] to experience significant and unremitting emotional distress.”

With respect to Sopinski, a seven-year veteran prison guard whose wife suffered from a serious chronic disease, “Defendant arbitrarily interfered with Plaintiff’s FMLA rights when Lackawanna County unilaterally charged Plaintiff for FMLA absence when he was not told that he was going to be charged if he did not work overtime.... Consequently, Defendant interfered with Plaintiff’s right to FMLA.”

The complaint also alleged that Sopinksi “learned that Defendant was discriminatorily requiring some Correctional Officers to be charged with a FMLA day if they did not work overtime, while allowing others to go without being charged when they did not work overtime [and] Defendant created a sick/mandate checklist that requires a correctional officer to obtain a doctor’s note if they cannot work overtime. In the case of Plaintiff who took FMLA for his wife’s illnesses, this requirement interfered with his FMLA rights that does not require a medical slip from someone who is not using FMLA for themselves.”

The suit further claimed that Sopinksi had been terminated “because he used FMLA.”

The problem with the county’s policy with respect to employees taking FMLA leave to deal with medical issues was that the Third Circuit had already ruled in another case on similar claims.

In settling the two lawsuits, Lackawanna County essentially acknowledged that it had, in fact, ignored not only FMLA requirements but also Third Circuit precedent. See: Joyce v. County of Lackawanna, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:16-cv-00279-RDM and Sopinski v. County of Lackawanna, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:16-cv-00466-RDM.

In May 2017, yet another FMLA suit was filed against Lackawanna County by a former prison guard who claimed he was fired in 2015 for declining to work overtime. James Bevan said he had been granted leave under FMLA for overtime work hours; however, the county reportedly had a practice of requiring overtime, and retaliated against him when he refused to work more than 40 hours a week.

He also alleged the county had improperly deducted time from his vacation, personal and sick days to compensate for his FMLA leave, while an attorney representing the county claimed that overtime was an “essential function” of Bevan’s job. His lawsuit remains pending. See: Bevan v. County of Lackawanna, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:17-cv-00919-ARC.

These cases illustrate the fact that prison officials not only oversee violations of prisoners’ rights, but also those of their own employees. 

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Related legal cases

Joyce v. County of Lackawanna

Sopinski v. County of Lackawanna

Bevan v. County of Lackawanna