Whistle-Blower Blues 

Officer wins lawsuit alleging Ada County fired him for reporting payroll errors

Ralph Gallagher grew tired of working overtime and not getting paid for it.

As an Ada County juvenile detention officer, he believed the problem would be fixed if he pointed it out to his superiors. But it wasn't.

Gallagher later filed a Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor. Despite a spotless five-year career, he was fired within four months.

In March 2002, he sued the county for wrongful termination. Last month he received $70,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

"All I wanted was to be treated fair," Gallagher said, last week.

Gallagher said he brought payroll concerns to his supervisors long before he filed his official complaint.

"I told them, 'you guys gotta change this,'" he said.

But Gallagher said nothing changed, so he filed FLSA complaints in May 2001. In the compaints he questioned the countywide pay system, a detention policy of employees reporting to work 15 minutes early without pay, and some unclear payment procedures for training.

Shortly after filing his complaints, Gallagher received three reprimands within one month, despite a prior personnel record with top-notch evaluations. From the start, he believed his supervisors created the paperwork just to get rid of him.

"This is a typical good-old-boy system," he said. "As soon as I opened my mouth, they made up false allegations to fire me."

Specifically, he said a supervisor accused him of: using excessive force, sidetracking grievances and inappropriate contact with juvenile inmates. However, Gallagher said there were no investigations or paperwork included with the allegations.

"Our position is these were trumped-up issues," said his attorney, Bill Thomas.

Thomas helped prepare Gallagher's legal complaint against the Ada County Juvenile Court Services, former 4th District Court Administrator John Traylor and Juvenile Detention Manager Shelly Smith.

The complaint said Traylor terminated Gallagher after Smith told Gallagher's coworkers his FLSA complaint would make their working hours "less favorable."

Smith declined to comment, as did director of Ada County juvenile court services, Kay Carter. Both were represented in court by Cary Colaianni.

"All I can say is, the case was settled," Colaianni said. "The labor department did a complete review and no violations were found with respect to Mr. Gallagher."

Colaianni went on to say the federal review did find some discrepancies, but that they were owed to another employee, only in the amount of $600.

Labor department officials were unable to confirm the results of their investigation as of press time.

Regardless, Thomas said county officials had no right to terminate Gallagher. "Even if his complaints were baseless, terminating him for asserting his FLSA rights is a violation of law," Thomas said.

Sharon Ullman, a former Ada County commissioner, agreed. "I view this as a whistle-blower being fired in retaliation for reporting these violations," she said.

But Ullman said Gallagher's complaints were not baseless. She said she ordered county officials to investigate them after Gallagher approached her in early 2001.

"They found problems countywide," she said. "The entire pay system had to be changed, all thanks to Ralph bringing this to my attention."

Ullman explained the former system paid employees on a monthly basis, which did not always allow proper adjustments for overtime. She said changes were then made to ensure employees were paid for time previously overlooked.

Ironically, the Bush administration is proposing sweeping changes to overtime regulations which could eliminate overtime pay for many white-collar jobs.

"I'm a Republican, but this would be taking a step back into the dark ages," Ullman said.

Despite the possible future changes, Gallagher has since moved on with his life. He now works as a security officer for Boise's Saint Luke's Regional Medical Center.

Gallagher declined to sign a confidentiality agreement in the settlement because he wants people to be aware of and learn from his experience. Mostly, he is concerned about the large amount of money Ada County used to fight his case. (Boise Weekly was unable verify the actual amount as of press time.)

Gallagher estimated the county spent at least $150,000 on his case, for their private attorney's fees and Gallagher's $70,000 settlement, of which $32,000 went to Thomas.

"When are these Detention Managers going to be held accountable for their expensive acts of employee retaliation?" Gallagher asked.

To be sure, although Gallagher lost his job, many people (including many county employees) could consider him a hero, as Ullman already does. But she still looks at the event as tragic and a shame.

"It should never have happened," she said. "County employees do not deserve to be treated this way."

For more information, contact: U.S. Department of Labor, Employment Standards Administration, Wage and Hour Division, (208) 321-2487 www.dol.gov/esa/whd/flsa/index.htm.

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