Chicago Smartphone Overtime Case Shows Wisdom of Following The Policy

A federal court in Chicago handed down an important ruling on overtime in the digital age earlier this month. While the case involved the off-duty use of a smartphone by a Chicago police officer, the facts could apply to virtually any profession including firefighters.

Jeffrey Allen, a sergeant in the Chicago Police Department, was issued a smartphone when assigned to the Bureau of Organized Crime. Allen claimed that members of the bureau routinely used the devices to communicate via voice, text and email both on and off-duty. He filed a class action lawsuit under the Fair Labor Standards Act claiming he and his coworkers used the phones for business-related work while off-duty but were never compensated for the time.

As the Allen case made its way to trial, it garnered a great deal of attention by attorneys following digital age overtime issues. The case was similar to a growing number of FLSA suits filed by employees of companies from T-Mobile to LoJack who claimed their bosses required them to use – or at least were aware they were using – smartphones and computers for work-related matters while off-duty without compensation. For five years, Chicago fought to keep the case from getting to trial but in the end a bench trial began last fall.

The trial took a turn that none of the commentators anticipated: while Judge Sidney I. Schenkier concluded the officers clearly used the devices for work related purposes while off-duty, he ruled in favor of the city because the officers failed to follow prescribed requirements for submitting for overtime compensation.

Judge Schenkier pointed to a line of cases that held that where employers have reasonable policies and procedures pertaining to documenting and reporting overtime hours, they are not obligated to compensate employees for their overtime hours when the employees fail to follow the employers’ rules for requesting overtime compensation. The judge rejected the officers’ allegations that the police department’s unwritten policy of discouraging them from submitting justified their failure to comply.

The ruling was handed down on December 10, 2015. An appeal is likely.

Here is a copy: Allen v Chicago RULING


About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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