AUBURN — When a former Androscoggin County worker first went to county administrators to correct errors in his paycheck, he would have owed the county $131.97.

Instead, the county ended up paying nearly $50,000, most of it in court costs; little of it in actual wage compensation to Kevin Nichols, according to a union attorney.

After Nichols was rebuffed, he filed a grievance, and later went to arbitration and filed a lawsuit to recover the small amount of money he felt he was owed.

It didn’t have to be that way, said John Chapman, the attorney representing the union of which Nichols was a member.

An arbitrator determined that Nichols should be awarded his pay raise and back pay, totaling roughly $1,300; the county paid him only $705.09, Chapman said.

“We understood that they were inclined to make up the difference,” Chapman said. “We waited months (for the remaining $599.80) and they never did pay the remainder. We filed suit. They made another partial payment shortly after the suit was filed.”

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The matter, which had started with Nichols’ internal complaint three years ago, was finally settled in July.

Chapman said that Nichols had been seeking an hourly wage raise consistent with the pay grade that he felt he was entitled when he started working for the county. At the same time, Nichols had brought to the attention of administrators the fact that he had been getting an hourly nighttime differential to which he hadn’t been entitled since he had moved to a daytime shift. The three-cent-per-hour difference between the two errors at that point would have resulted in Nichols owing the county $131.97, Chapman said.

The county’s initial response was that Nichols owed them $1,200, Chapman said. If he were to drop the matter, he was told, the county would settle for about $347 (more than twice what he actually owed) and reduce his hourly wage, according to Chapman.

County administrators argued he didn’t have the right to file a grievance, then failed to pay the full amount of the arbitrator’s award, according to the union.

Commission Chairwoman Beth Bell said Friday the county is happy to be finished with the matter.

“We’re glad it’s behind us,” she said.

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Asked whether she agreed with the union’s figure of a $48,000 cost to the county, Bell said: “No, it does not sound right to me.”

She confirmed the amount paid to Nichols was $2,000. Chapman’s fees of $12,000 were paid by the county, she said. She declined to provide a dollar figure for the county’s legal fees in the matter.

Delbert Mason, president of the Androscoggin County Employee Association, compiled a list of bills sent to the county by its attorney after the union filed a request under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. He supplied a packet of information, including copies of the county’s legal bills, to the Sun Journal as well as municipal officials in Androscoggin County’s towns and cities, he said.

He calculated the total amount at between $35,000 and $40,000 as of March. Chapman said the total amount the county owed in the matter by the time it was settled was roughly $48,000.

Bell said the commission settled the suit to save taxpayers further legal costs, but she believes the county would have prevailed had the suit continued.

“The commissioners believe that former Detective Nichols’ lawsuit is meritless,” Bell said. “The county would have won at trial; however, the commissioners decided it was in the best interest of the county taxpayers to pay this former employee a small amount to settle the matter instead of incurring the attorney’s fees that come along with going to trial.

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“The commissioners are happy to put this matter in the past and to work together with the Sheriff’s Office to build a stronger Androscoggin County,” she said.

In U.S. District Court in Portland, a judge in May rejected a motion filed by Androscoggin County to dismiss Nichols’ claim that he wasn’t paid wages he was owed, moving the case forward.

The matter was originally filed in Androscoggin County Superior Court in 2014 but was moved to federal court when Nichols added a claim under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which falls under the federal court’s jurisdiction.

The county had sought to dismiss the case at the state Superior Court level before it was moved to federal court. That action failed.

Nichols had been battling the county for back wages since he moved from patrol duty in Poland on the night shift to a day shift working as a corrections officer at the Androscoggin County Jail.

After his transfer, Nichols notified then-Sheriff Guy Desjardins that his pay was not being calculated correctly, and that he was being underpaid his hourly wage.

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The following day, Desjardins sent a letter to County Treasurer Robert Poulin, noting Nichols was still being paid the night shift differential, even though he no longer qualified for it. Desjardins asked Poulin to “take appropriate steps to correct this matter.”

Desjardins had calculated Nichols was overpaid $342.73.

Two weeks later, Poulin sent a memo to Nichols noting the overpayment, with instruction that he must refund the overpayment by the end of the year. If Nichols made no effort to refund the wages, Poulin’s memo noted that the overpayment would be automatically deducted from his weekly paycheck over 12 weeks.

According to court records, Nichols objected to the automatic deductions and contacted his union. The union filed a grievance with the county that Nichols’ base and overtime pay were not being calculated properly, asserting that the county owed him more than $3,200 in back wages.

In February 2014, Nichols filed a lawsuit in Androscoggin County Superior Court, claiming he was still owed back pay.

In addition to the back wages, Nichols sought reimbursement of court costs, plus attorney’s fees and damages.

Nichols has since left the Androsocoggin County Sheriff’s Department.

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