April 2012 Court Report
Read the April 2012 issue of Court Report, which includes such topics as immunity, personal injury, open meetings, expense allowances. This newsletter is an ACSBA member benefit.
April 2012 Issue of Court Report
Alabama Supreme Court
- Immunity/Personal Injury
Ex parte Montgomery County Board of Education, --- So.3d ---, 2012 WL 247932 (Ala. Jan. 27, 2012)
In this case, a third-grade student was hurt after she tried to climb a restroom door that had become stuck. The child’s mother sued the board, its members in their official capacities and the child’s teacher in her individual and official capacity for negligence and wantonness. In response, the defendants claimed that they were immune. The trial court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and the defendants sought review in the Court of Civil Appeals.
First, the Court held that the board is absolutely immune as a local agency of the state. The same is true for the board members and teacher in their official capacities as that action is considered an action against the state.
Finally, the teacher argued that she was entitled to state agent immunity for the claims brought against her in her individual capacity. The Court set out the immunity standard established by Ex parte Cranman, 792 So.2d 392, 405 (Ala. 2000). Cranman provided in part that employees are entitled to state agent immunity when their actions involve matters of discretion. Here, the teacher was accused of negligently allowing the child to go to the bathroom without adult supervision. Because there was no policy or rule requiring the teacher to accompany the child to the restroom, her decision was a matter of discretion and she was entitled to immunity. There was also no evidence of bad faith, malice or that the teacher acted beyond her authority by allowing the child to go to the restroom on her own. Therefore, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and ordered that summary judgment be entered in favor of all defendants.
Alabama Court of Civil Appeals
- Open Meetings Act
Lambert v. McPherson, --- So.3d ---, 2012 WL 1071632 (Ala. March 30, 2012)
In this case, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging that board members violated the Open Meetings Act. Specifically, the plaintiff claimed board members communicated by email about a policy change the board was considering and that the email constituted a “meeting”. In response, the defendants argued that the single email sent from one board member to the other board members expressing his opinion did not constitute a “meeting” because it involved no deliberation about the proposed policy change. The trial court agreed and entered judgment in favor of the board members. The plaintiff appealed.
The Court first noted that a “meeting” required three elements: that (1) a quorum of the body (2) deliberate about (3) a matter expected to come before it at a later time. The Court noted that the email went to a quorum of the board and involved a matter expected to come before it, but did not involve deliberation. Rather, the email constituted only one person’s opinion; not an exchange of information or ideas among the board members. Therefore, the Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s decision in favor of the board members.
United States Supreme Court
- Governmental Immunity for Private Attorneys
Filarsky v. Delia, 566 U.S. ---, 2012 WL 1288731(Apr. 17, 2012)
This case began when the firefighter/employee missed several days of work due to an illness. After becoming suspicious that the employee was not sick, the city hired a private investigator and a private attorney to investigate the employee. The employee subsequently sued the city, the fire department, officials and the attorney claiming they violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The trial court granted summary judgment to all of the city defendants based on qualified immunity, but denied summary judgment to the attorney based on the fact that he was not a city employee. The attorney appealed.
The U.S. Supreme Court first noted that the government’s interest in avoiding “unwarranted timidity” when carrying out its business was a valid concern no matter if the agent was a full-time employee or otherwise. Second, the Court found that talented people would be deterred from engaging in public service if they could not enjoy the same protections as regular public employees. Third, the Court noted that the public had an interest in permitting the government to perform its duties free of the distractions caused by lawsuits no matter the status of the person performing the action on the government’s behalf. Finally, drawing a distinction among those who perform government work and their precise status would make it difficult for state actors to determine if their conduct would give rise to liability. That is, at what point do you gain protection? As a full-time employee only? If you do more than half of your work for the government? What if the attorney maintains a private law office, but the City is his only client? The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that a private individual temporarily retained by the government is entitled to the protections of qualified immunity.
Attorney General’s Opinion
- Expense Allowances
A.G. Op. No. 2012-033
By local act, the legislature provided the superintendent an expense allowance. That allowance went unpaid for several years. The board sought guidance as to whether it could retroactively pay its superintendent the expense allowance. The Attorney General first noted that Section 68 of the Constitution of Alabama prohibited additional compensation for services already performed, which would include retroactive payments. However, that section does not prohibit such compensation where the official has the right to the payments at the time he performs the services or where there is an expectation or agreement of payment. Therefore, the Attorney General determined that the board could pay the superintendent retroactively because he had a right to the payments at the time he performed the service.