Civil Service Board Has Limited Authority To Correct Sergeant Pay Variations

As put by the Tennessee Court of Appeals, “there is little rhyme or reason to the pay scale of the individuals holding the rank of sergeant in the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office. Don Gorman, director of administration for the Sheriff, admitted that there ‘absolutely’ is a pay disparity among the class of sergeants. All corporals in the Sheriff’s Office make the same amount. The same is true of those holding the rank of captain. The salaries of the various sergeants, however, range from a low of approximately $43,000 to a high of approximately $49,000.”

The differences in the wages of sergeants was due to a number of factors, important among them the Sheriff’s “discretion” (there is no collective bargaining for Sheriff’s Department employees). Employees who are promoted from one rank to another are never paid less than what they were earning just prior to their promotion. Thus, some deputies, who were already making more than some of the sergeants, have been promoted to the rank of sergeant with the result that, even though obviously they have been a sergeant for much less time than other sergeants, they are making more money than their more-senior cohorts. The Sheriff, in the exercise of his discretion, gave one newly-promoted sergeant a raise of approximately $1,900 even though that sergeant was already making well above the average pay for sergeants.

Six sergeants filed a grievance with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office Civil Service Board complaining that the disparity in pay among the 19 sergeants violated civil service rules. The Board found a disparity and ordered the Sheriff “to equalize their pay and if all sergeants do the same job that they should be paid the same if there is no written criteria to establish standards.” The case eventually wound up in the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

The Court overturned the Board’s order, finding that under Tennessee law, an administrative agency can only exercise those powers specifically granted it by the Tennessee Legislature. Finding no statute that granted the Board the authority to compel the Sheriff to pay all sergeants equally, the Court reversed the Board’s order to the Sheriff.

Because the pay inequity did, in fact, violate the civil service rules, the Court was left with the issue of what to do with the case. The solution, the Court found, was to dump the matter back in the Sheriff’s lap. As put by the Court, “we remand this matter to the Board so it can direct the Sheriff in writing to take the necessary steps to eliminate the disparity in sergeant pay. It is for the Sheriff to determine how this goal is to be achieved, but – the grievance in this case having been sustained – the goal must be achieved.”

Hammond v. Harvey, 2012 WL 651631 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2012).