Philadelphia Fire Department paramedics who went to court to get overtime pay won a significant victory today when a federal appeals court ruled that they are entitled to overtime pay if they work more than 40 hours a week.

The 2-to-1 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit came in a case involving about 300 fire service paramedics assigned to 40 units at firehouses across the city.

The appellate judges sent the case back to U.S. District Court for a determination of damages.

Outlining the case, Judge Dolores K. Sloviter wrote in the majority opinion that it is well known that an employer generally must pay time-and-a-half for overtime, though certain employees are exempt from that requirement.

The central question in the case, she wrote, was whether Fire Department paramedics have "legal authority and responsibility" for firefighting under the Fair Labor Standards Act - which would mean they were not entitled to overtime.

Lawyers for the city contended that the paramedics did have such authority and responsibility, and thus were not entitled to overtime.

U.S. District Court Judge Clifford Scott Green agreed with the city and threw out the lawsuit in 2006, and the paramedics appealed to the Third Circuit.

Today, Sloviter and Judge Michael A. Chagares sided with the paramedics.

"It cannot fairly be said that the [fire service paramedics] have a real obligation to fight fires because it is not what they were hired to do, and it is not what they are expected to do as part of their job duties," wrote Sloviter.

As a result, the two judges concluded, the paramedics are not exempt from the overtime-requirement provision of the Fair Standards Labor Act.

Judge Thomas M. Hardiman disagreed, saying that the majority was "unfaithful" to 1999 amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act, and their approach would expose municipalities to "potentially staggering damage awards" that Congress intended to prevent.

But Sloviter said the city might have a good-faith defense. "It is important to note that if the City can show it acted in good faith, it may not be subject to damages for its past overtime pay practice," she wrote.

Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at 215-854-4828 or at elounsberry@phillynews.com.