Asheville Citizen Times

March 17th, 2014

Troopers ask for back pay in lawsuit

ASHEVILLE - State troopers are owed millions of dollars in back pay because of problems with North Carolina's step-raise system, according to a lawsuit filed Monday.

The lawsuit was filed in Cherokee County, where one of the plaintiffs lives.

Attorney David Wijewickrama said he will ask that the breech of contract lawsuit be designated a class action so that every state trooper could be covered under it.

The document he provided in talking with reporters in Asheville had 39 plaintiffs though he said more have been added since he wrote the complaint. So far, he said, he has 50 plaintiffs.

Wijewickrama said the state could owe troopers between $7 and $10 million.

The suit is filed against State Treasurer Janet Cowell, a Democrat.

Wijewickrama said N.C. Highway Patrol commanders have tried to get the troopers the raises they were promised but elected leaders failed to act.

He said his clients are filing the lawsuit now because they fear the General Assembly might ban this type of legal action. The government returns to session in May.

Troopers, according to court papers, were promised raises in steps but since 2009, the state has failed to provide the pay increases.

Wijewickrama said the increases come in 5 percent steps between the ranks of trooper and master trooper. Troopers start at about $35,000 a year. The low end of the master trooper range is $57,000.

The failure to give troopers the promised raises has created financial hardships with some officers unable to heat their homes in the winter, unable to pay medical bills and even seeking public assistance, he said. It has also meant inequity on the job with master troopers making vastly different amounts while doing the same work with the same responsibilities.

"The state's broken promises to these troopers are a gross failure of leadership and integrity," he said. "Neither political party can lay blame on the other. They both own these failures under the present and prior gubernatorial administrations."

Wijewickrama said he filed the case in Cherokee County so that leaders in Raleigh would have to "look at a map to know how far the state went."

The state must respond within 60 days. The next step is a hearing on preliminaries and to determine whether the suit will be a class action, he said.

The offices of Cowell and Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, did not respond to requests for comment.