Settlement checks could be in the mail by the end of next week for nearly 9,000 substitute teachers, who sued the state over back-pay issues in 2002 and won a $14 million settlement last fall, their attorney said Wednesday.
Paul Alston, who held the multimillion dollar check in his hands just before being interviewed by The Maui News on Wednesday, said plaintiffs' attorneys took on the task of distributing the settlement - with the state Department of Education picking up the $200,000 tab. The arrangement, in which Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing would receive the settlement check for distribution through an independent payroll company, was approved by a state judge.
The case was originally filed 12 years ago by then-substitute teacher David Garner of Maui. The settlement approved by Circuit Judge Karl Sakamoto in November covered per diem, or daily wages, for the years 2000 to 2005, according to court documents.
The order did not specify a specific date for the payment, although the money had to be disbursed "in a reasonable time," said Alston. The DOE said that it would not be able to cut checks to the substitute teachers until before the end of March, which Alston called unacceptable.
"We then set out to find a workaround for the money to come out sooner," he said, adding that the sides have been negotiating for four months.
He noted that it was not a "normal process" for the state to cut these nearly 9,000 checks, although he did question the DOE's "will to get it done." Stopping short of accusing state officials of "acting in bad faith," he did say that the DOE has "lots and lots of people and lots and lots of resources."
The attorney general "is very pleased that we are to finally resolve the issues and that the substitute teachers are going to receive the pay," said Anne Lopez, special assistant to the attorney general, Wednesday.
She said that the DOE told Alston that the money would be disbursed in the first pay period in March.
"They wanted to get the money out faster," she said Wednesday. "We said that's fine."
She added that the state departments of Accounting and General Services and Education were in their busy season, processing W-2s and performing other end-of-the-year tax activities.
So with the money in hand Wednesday, Alston said that the funds were sent to the contracted payroll service company that day. The company will cut checks in seven days, meaning payments will be out in the mail by end of next week, he said.
The 8,830 checks range from $20,000 to a few dollars, Alston said.
The genesis of the case lies in a pay raise negotiated between the teachers union and the DOE, Garner told The Maui News in November. Union teachers got pay raises, but substitute teachers did not.
Garner and other substitute teachers filed a lawsuit in 2002, claiming that by state law their pay was tied to the level paid to class II teachers, who received a pay raise in the contract.
The case went up to the state Intermediate Court of Appeals, where the court ruled in favor of Garner and substitute teachers in November 2009. An appeal by the state to the Hawaii Supreme Court was rejected the next year.
The state Legislature approved $15 million for the settlement of the Garner class-action lawsuit. That appropriation led to the partial settlement, court documents said.
After he filed the lawsuit, Garner said his number of days of substitute teaching dropped from 170 days a year to 140 days. After moving to Florida, he and his family returned to Maui recently. He is no longer substitute teaching and has taken another job.
"I'm happy and have a job and (am) able to take care of my family," Garner said in November. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Alston noted that this payment is just a partial settlement. There still are outstanding issues of past due interest, which Alston put at about $10 million, attorney's fees and pay issues regarding part-time hourly teachers.
The settlement so far "represents a quarter of the total that will be paid out," he said.
Though "long overdue," he took satisfaction in holding the settlement check in his hands.
"It's not bad," he said.
* Lee Imada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.