A judge has ruled in favor of three magistrate judges who sued Beaufort County for failing to raise their salaries according to a timetable set by state law.
Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen ordered Thursday that the county owes 11 magistrate judges more than three months retroactive pay, totaling about $20,000, according to attorneys on both sides of the case.
State law requires an automatic salary increase for magistrate judges when a county's population surpasses 150,000. When U.S. Census data became official March 22, 2011, it indicated the county's population was 161,000. The County Council voted to make the pay raises effective on July 1 -- at the start of the 2011-12 fiscal year -- but the judges contend their raises should have kicked in more than three months earlier, on March 22.
Mullen said in her order that the County Council acted outside its power in delaying the raises.
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"The law is clear that the base pay is automatically determined by the then-current Census," the order said. "State Code does not ... indicate the base pay will increase when or if approved by County Council."
Judges Beth Prince, David Taub and Lawrence McElynn filed the suit in December to recoup the lost pay.
"The law is clear on this matter," said the magistrates' attorney, Butch Bowers of Columbia-based Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge and Rice. "The magistrates are entitled to receive compensation back to March 22."Mullen did not order the county to pay the magistrates' legal fees as Bowers requested in the lawsuit, but Bowers said he will file a request this week to have the county pay his fees.
Bowers said it's "too premature" to estimate how much the county might owe in legal expenses because the county's attorney in charge of the case, Bill Young, still has 30 days to appeal. Attempts Monday to reach Young, of Howell Gibson and Hughes PA in Beaufort, for comment was unsuccessful. County attorney Josh Gruber said the County Council will discuss the order Monday.
"I'm going to recommend that they fight paying any costs or fees outside of Judge Mullen's order," he said, but added that it would be up to Young and the council to decide whether to appeal.
"County Council had a legitimate argument about why they shouldn't have had to increase the magistrates' salaries at the requested timing," Gruber said. "The reason was because of the inequity to the other county employees that had to take a five-day furlough and had also not received pay increases in years."
It has been four years since a county employee has received a pay raise.
State law says magistrates' pay should be at least 55 percent of what circuit judges make. The salary for circuit judges was not immediately available Monday.