April 2013 Court Report: Fair Dismissal Act, Teacher Accountability Act, Open Records Act, teachers retirement system
Read the April 2013 issue of Court Report, which includes such topics as the Fair Dismissal Act, Teacher Accountability Act, Open Records Act and the teachers retirement system. This newsletter is an ACSBA member benefit.
April 2013 Issue of Court Report
- Fair Dismissal Act – Reduction in Force
Huntsville City Board of Education v. Johnson, -- So.3d --, 2013 WL 1694484 (Ala.Civ.App. Apr. 19, 2013)
This case, which began before the Students First Act went into effect, involved the board’s decision to terminate an employee after declaring a reduction in force due to financial difficulties. The hearing officer reversed the termination asserting that the board had failed to demonstrate how the termination would improve the board’s financial condition. The board appealed to the Court of Civil Appeals arguing that the hearing officer applied the wrong burden and improperly required the board to establish financial savings.
The Court first addressed whether the hearing officer properly required the board to demonstrate that the termination would improve the financial condition of the board. The Court determined that it would improperly encroach on the board’s authority to determine which employees should be terminated. Rather, the board need only demonstrate that it was suffering from severe financial hardship and that a rational response to that hardship was to reduce its employee workforce.
On cross-appeal, the employee argued that the board’s notice to her was insufficient because it did not refer to later admitted evidence that the school system was in danger of being taken over by the state. The Court held that the notice was sufficient.
Because the hearing officer applied the incorrect analysis, the Court reversed the decision and remanded the case to the hearing officer to determine whether the board proved it was suffering from financial hardship and whether its RIF decision was a rational method of responding to that hardship.
- Teacher Accountability Act – Contract Principal
Curry v. Russell County Board of Education, -- So.3d --, 2013 WL 1694469 (Ala.Civ.App. Apr. 19, 2013)
This case involved the nonrenewal of a contract principal at the end of her contract period. The board nonrenewed the employee and the employee requested an expedited hearing in circuit court. During that hearing, the purpose of which was to determine if the decision was based on impermissible personal or political reasons, the employee attempted to introduce evidence that she was not properly evaluated. Based on this allegation, she asserted that she was entitled to additional years on her contract. The board objected arguing that the evidence was improper because the court could only consider whether the employee was nonrenewed for personal or political reasons at the hearing. The trial court agreed and prohibited the employee from presenting evidence regarding her evaluation. The trial court subsequently ruled in favor of the board.
The employee appealed to the Court of Civil Appeals arguing that the trial court improperly prevented her from offering evidence regarding her evaluations. In reviewing the plain language of the statute which clearly limits the trial court to considering only whether the recommendation was made for personal or political reasons, the Court disagreed with the employee and held that the trial court properly barred the evaluation evidence.
The employee then argued that that she was terminated for the personal reason of racism, but the trial court found that evidence to not be credible. She also argued that the reasons presented for her termination were not valid. The Court noted that the ore tenus rule mandated a presumption of correctness to the trial court’s holding and dictated that the evidence be viewed in the light most favorable to the prevailing party. The Court found that there was credible evidence supporting the trial court’s holding and refused to overturn its judgment on that basis.
- Open Records Act
A.G. Opinion 2013-040 (Apr. 8, 2013)
This opinion was issued regarding whether a probate judge could charge a reasonable fee for complying with an Open Records Act request. The opinion noted that “a public entity may recoup reasonable costs incurred in providing public documents, including staff research, preparation and time.” However, the opinion also noted that the fee must be reasonable so that public access to documents is not restricted.
- Teachers Retirement System – Independent Contractors
A.G. Op. 2013-044 (Apr. 11, 2013)
This opinion involves whether persons retired and receiving benefits from the Teachers Retirement System or Employees Retirement System are allowed to
work for TRS or ERS entities as independent contractors.
The law permits retirees to work for TRS and ERS entities as long as they are not employed full-time and they do not earn more than $23,000 per year. If a beneficiary works beyond those limitations, their benefits shall be suspended. The opinion noted that it is the responsibility of the employing party to ensure that beneficiaries are in compliance with these requirements. Alabama courts will generally defer to the rules and regulations promulgated by agencies. TRS and ERS have routinely taken the position that independent contractors do not trigger the benefit-suspension rules. Because TRS and ERS have taken the position that independent contractors do not trigger the benefit-suspension rules, the opinion concluded that TRS and ERS have the authority to promulgate regulations supporting this conclusion. Moreover, TRS and ERS have the authority to determine what factors should be considered when determining whether a beneficiary is an employee or an independent contractor.
Jayne is a shareholder with the law firm of Hill, Hill, Carter, Franco, Cole & Black