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The Lake News Online
  • Statute interpretation in dispute in back pay case

  • A retired judge from Howard County heard arguments in a lawsuit over back pay filed by Morgan County Treasurer Louella Pryor against fellow elected officials on the county government's salary commission.
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  • A retired judge from Howard County heard arguments in a lawsuit over back pay filed by Morgan County Treasurer Louella Pryor against fellow elected officials on the county government's salary commission. Both parties sought summary judgement in their favor from Judge Ralph Jaynes in Morgan County Circuit Court Aug. 20.
    After hearing arguments and rebuttals from attorneys representing both parties, Judge Jaynes determined to take all filings under advisement and said he would further review the case before making a decision.
    He indicated he would be in contact with both attorneys with preliminary findings on the case in the week or two following Labor Day. Each side would then have the opportunity to consider the court's leanings for a possible resolution between parties before a judgement is entered.
    Jaynes was appointed to hear the case after Circuit Court judges Ken Hayden and Stan Moore recused themselves.
    Pryor is suing the county for $93,600 for back pay she says she is owed after receiving 74 percent of her position's state-mandated salary while other officials received 100 percent.
    Pryor is now receiving 100 percent of the salary for her position — $45,000 — but is seeking lost earnings from when she was receiving $33,300 between 2003 and 2011.
    Most of the main facts of the case were not in dispute. It was rather the interpretation of statutes and he constitutionality of a mid-term salary adjustment that were argued.
    In 1997, the Morgan County salary commission set salaries for all elected officials at 100 percent. It met again in 2001 and took no action to change anything. In August 2002, new legislation went into effect setting a maximum of $45,000 but still allowing less as set by a county salary commission.
    Pryor originally took office in Jan. 2003 and received a salary of $33,300 instead of $45,000.
    The state legislature later mandated 100 percent of the maximum for county elected officials. To avoid singling out any one official, the only way to reduce a salary — setting it at less than 100 percent -—is by reducing all officials' salaries.
    In Nov. 2005, the Morgan County salary commission again set the treasurer's salary at $33,300. All other county elected officials received 100 percent of their state-mandated salary.
    While Pryor is the plaintiff, she is also listed as a defendant as she herself is on the salary commission which sets the percentage of pay for county elected officials. And Pryor voted for the salary schedule in Nov. 2005.
    While she did not speak in court, Pryor has said in past statements that she questioned the salary but was talked out of her belief that $33,300 was not the right amount. She has questioned the legality of the salary ever since.
    On the defendants' side, it was argued that the state mandated that a minimum of $45,000 in Aug. 2007 in the middle of Pryor's term second term. The salary remained the same because mid-term adjustments are not allowed under the Missouri Constitution. Any increase or decrease in amount must wait for the term to end before becoming effective.
    Page 2 of 2 - Attorneys on each side cited different cases on the issue of mid term adjustments.
    In 2011, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the Phelps County prosecuting attorney could receive a mid-term raise.
    The defense downplayed the significance of the case and cited a 1999 case in Laclede County in which mid-term raises were ruled illegal. While the raise did not occur until mid-term in the Phelps case, it was expected at the beginning of the term as the prosecuting attorney there receives a raise when county judges do, and they had just received a raise.
    According to the plaintiff's attorney, however, other Phelps County officials had received mid-term salary increases at least twice before.
    The defense also argued that even if the adjustment should have been, the statute of limitations has run out from the plaintiff said the adjustment should have occurred. The statute of limitations on this type of case is five years. The plaintiff, however, claimed that the last event in the stream of wrongs occurred Dec. 31, 2010.
    Pryor began receiving a $45,000 salary in 2011 on the beginning of her third term in office.
    Pryor filed the lawsuit in 2012 after attempting to negotiate a partial settlement on her own failed. She offered to accept four years back pay — $46,800 — without interest, but the county commission refused to give her any back pay.
    Pryor raised the issue after hearing an attorney speak at an October 2011 Missouri Association of Counties meeting on elected officials' salaries and becoming convinced that she had been right all along.
    The county treasurer is an elected official responsible for receiving, disbursing and investing all funds for the county and ensuring that monies are correctly segregated into separate funds as required by law. Pryor currently serves as first vice president of the Missouri County Treasurer's Association.
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