- Associated Press - Friday, March 6, 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - A judge has given class-action status to a lawsuit saying North Carolina has broken its promise to give magistrates pay raises.

Forty magistrates filed the lawsuit last year. But with Superior Court Judge Michael O’Foghludha’s ruling, the number could jump to more than 500.

Magistrates make $37,000 to $57,000 a year, based on the number of years of experience.

“We are very pleased with the judge’s order,” an attorney for the magistrates, David Wijewickrama, (WEE’-juh-wik-ram-uh) said Friday. “We are cautiously optimistic moving forward that, as the voices of state employees grow louder with more participants, state government will start to listen and pay them the moneys they are owed.”

The lawsuit is similar to one filed last year by Wijewickrama on behalf of state Highway Patrol troopers, who say they are facing severe financial hardships because they haven’t gotten pay raises as promised.

A hearing is pending on whether to grant the troopers’ lawsuit class-action status.

During the hearing for the magistrates’ lawsuit, Wijewickrama said the pay raises were contractual, and were not discretionary. The increases were supposed to come in steps.

The state, however, said that it lawfully suspended step increases for the magistrates between 2009 and 2014.

But O’Foghludha said the lawsuit should extend beyond the 40 plaintiffs.

“Whether the state could suspend step increases for the magistrates between 2009 and 2014 without incurring liability is an issue” that affects “all members of the class,” the judge said.

He noted that the class-action would head off any confusion for magistrates who are not part of it, but who decide to file similar lawsuits.

He said the class will include all magistrates who were employed by the state at any time between June 30, 2009 and July 1, 2014.

The lawsuit said magistrates have lost pay and benefits, including retirement benefits. They are seeking back pay plus interest.

Wijewickrama said lawmakers and government officials have put other interests ahead of magistrates.

“It is not unreasonable to ask that magistrates, who serve their communities 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and who have already worked the hours based on a promise of a certain rate of pay … be paid what they are owed,” he said.

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