DHS attorney claims salary comes up short

An attorney in the Mississippi Department of Human Services’ Child Support Enforcement Division is suing the agency, claiming his salary has been lower than allowed by state law.

William Satterfield, who has been with DHS’ Harrison County office since 2009, filed the lawsuit March 1 in Hinds County Chancery Court. Listed as defendants are Gov. Phil Bryant, Mississippi State Personnel Board executive director Deanne Mosley, DHS executive director Richard Berry and Wally Naylor, former director of the CSE group.

Each is sued in their official capacity.

State law mandates that DHS’ child support unit have at least one attorney in each chancery court district who is responsible for establishing paternity and collecting child support. The attorneys’ salaries are set by law, according to the salaries of other full-time attorneys employed in the attorney general’s office. The law requires the Personnel Board review annually the salaries of the AG’s attorneys and adjust those of DHS attorneys accordingly. Minimum salaries for DHS staff attorneys cannot fall below $40,000 a year; for senior attorneys, that figure is $50,000.

Satterfield alleges in his complaint that the defendants failed to make the proper salary adjustments, and failed to conduct the annual salary comparison between DHS and AG attorneys. Satterfield claims whistle-blower protection in his complaint.

Satterfield, who is representing himself, claims his salary range was between $40,000 and $70,000, below the AG attorney range of $67,000 and $117,000. Satterfield claims that salaries of child support enforcement attorneys are “arbitrarily assigned and grossly underpaid.”

“They haven’t met the minimum salary requirement, per that statute,” he said in an interview this week. The law doesn’t specify if DHS and AG attorneys be the same, or a percentage of each other. Satterfield said he believes they should be the same. “Another thing is apparently they’ve got some sort of formula that they use to calculate the child support salary, but I’d like to see the formula. I’ve asked for it in discovery”

Complying with the statute would also require the agencies to place in a separate fund attorney fee collections related to child support enforcement litigation, and not in a generic DHS general fund, Satterfield says in his complaint.

In a memo to former DHS executive director Don Taylor, sent in October 2011, Naylor says segregating the funds would not leave CSE’s overall general fund low on money. In another memo sent later that month, Naylor told Thompson that of the $800,000 that would be part of overall 2011 attorney fee collections, less than $500,000 would be needed to raise each CSE attorney’s salary by $8,000. Giving senior attorneys a slightly larger raise and staff attorneys a slightly smaller one, Naylor wrote, would cost a little less. Each option would leave $300,000 in the child Support Protection Trust Fund, the memo said. In each memo, attached as exhibits to Satterfield’s complaint, Naylor asks that the collection fees be separated from DHS’ general fund.

Naylor adds that doing so would help DHS retain its CSE attorneys, which in turn would be a long-term cost-saving measure, keeping veteran attorneys from traveling to train new hires and allowing them to focus on their existing caseloads.

“If you read the memos, they really haven’t done what they’re supposed to do,” Satterfield said. “It’s like they’re trying to shirk their responsibility. The salary should be increased to an amount commensurate with that of the special assistant attorneys general. It’s sad that we’re hovering around $40,000-$45,000 when the statute provides for a good $20,000 more. That’s a lot of money right there.”

Satterfield asks for lost wages, attorneys’ fees, and for the Personnel Board to begin salary review procedures.

Personnel Board spokesperson Shawn McGregor declined comment in an email to the Mississippi Business Journal, other than to say the agency has filed a motion to dismiss Satterfield’s lawsuit. Bryant spokesperson Mick Bullock referred questions to DHS, whose spokesperson did not respond to a message.

Child Support collections could be privatized under new law

Starting July 1, the Mississippi Department of Human Services will be allowed to outsource some of its programs to private vendors.

That includes its child support collection division, which is the subject of a lawsuit filed by one of its attorneys. William Satterfield, who has worked in DHS’ Harrison County office, says his salary has been lower than allowed by law.

The legislation authorizing the DHS to enter into private contracts did not have an easy time clearing the Capitol. Opponents said it could lead to layoffs of existing state employees whose duties were outsourced They also cited a failed program in the late 1990s that spent more to collect less than state attorneys.

Supporters said it could save the agency money, and ease the caseloads for child support attorneys. Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus, supported the bill, saying during debate in the Senate that overdue child support in Mississippi has climbed over $1 billion.

The bill’s final version cleared the Senate 30-20, and cleared the House 62-56. Each vote came mostly along party lines.

Gov. Phil Bryant signed the bill April 23.

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