West Miami-Dade

Sweetwater commissioners approve settlement on K-9 overtime pay lawsuit

Sweetwater officer Jenna Mendéz with her K-9, Lana, at Sweetwater Elementary on November 2013.
Sweetwater officer Jenna Mendéz with her K-9, Lana, at Sweetwater Elementary on November 2013. El Nuevo Herald

Sweetwater commissioners have voted to pay $25,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by K-9 officer Jenna Méndez, who claimed she had been owed compensation for working overtime to take care of two dogs for a period of three years.

In August 2014, Méndez — daughter of former Miami-Dade Commissioner Lynda Bell — sued the city in federal court under the Fair Labor Standards Act after she had been assigned two dogs, a bloodhound named Gunner and a German shepherd named Lana, during the previous administration.

City Attorney Ralph Ventura told commissioners that under the FLSA, the employer has the burden of proof, and the city was on the hook to pay attorney fees.

Commissioners passed on the same settlement offer in November, but after mediation and a closed executive session, Ventura advised them to settle the case to avoid paying a larger sum in attorney’s fees.

“I have some issues with the amount she’s claiming,” Ventura said during Monday night’s meeting. “If she gets anything at all the city has to pay attorney’s fees.”

Officials had feared that settling the case would spark more K-9 lawsuits within the police department.

During a November meeting, Commissioner Jose Bergouignan said the settlement would set a precedent in the city.

“Everybody is going to line up and get a $25,000 check,” said Bergouignan, who was absent from the meeting on Monday night. The vote passed 3-2.

Sweetwater Police Chief Jesus Menocal echoed the commissioner’s concerns on Monday, when he told officials that the problems with K-9 officers would not end with Méndez.

“I can guarantee it’s not only going to be Jenna. The issue with the K-9s has been going on a long time,” Menocal said.

While Méndez was the only officer in the department with two dogs, others could demand compensation for the care and maintenance of their dogs for previous years. Menocal said that officers weren’t paid for dog food or leashes until a budget line was added this fiscal year.

Méndez was only training one dog, Gunner, in West Palm Beach. The basis of the lawsuit, according to Ventura, is the claim for hours driving to and from training.

In December, officials decided to retire Gunner from duty and gave him to Méndez.

Mayor Jose M. Diaz and Menocal brought up whether Méndez should have presented her grievances with the Miami-Dade County Police Benevolent Association before filing a suit.

Email records show that Méndez did go to the PBA in 2013, and their general counsel referred her to seek private counsel.

Despite the city attorney’s advice, Menocal insisted to the commission that Méndez had no claim, since she had far more privileges, including a city-issued credit card, than other officers. Menocal has said that Méndez was paid 40 hours a week for taking care of the dogs in a 35-hour work week, when the police department usually compensates K-9 officers an extra four hours pay per week.

“I don’t agree on anything that was owed to her. She had a better schedule and privilege than any other K-9. She had a credit card,” Menocal said.

Commissioner Orlando Lopez said that regardless of a credit card, the drive time means Méndez is entitled to some hours. “She’s owed time. What she’s suing for is hours that she should have been paid,” Lopez said. “And then there’s this personal prejudice. I don’t care if she had a credit card. I don’t care if she wore a pink uniform to her training.”