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March 2017 Court Report

10-Mar-2017

Read the March 2017 issue of Court Report, which includes such topics as State-Agent Immunity and Students First Act.

Click the case names to read the complete opinions. This newsletter is an ACSBA member benefit.

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MARCH 2017 COURT REPORT

 

Alabama Supreme Court


Ex parte Ingram, -- So.3d --, 2017 WL 728174 (Ala.Civ.App. Feb. 24, 2017)

This case arose from an incident involving a male and female child at a school which serves students with profound disabilities. The boy, who had a history of physically and sexually aggressive behavior towards adults and students, attacked the girl during a short period of time when the teacher and aide were assisting other students. The girl and her mother sued the board and several employees in federal court for violations of Title IX, Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act for failing to protect the girl. The federal court granted summary judgment on the federal claims, but permitted the student to sue the employees in state court on her remaining state claims. The student then sued the principal, two teachers and an aide in state court in their individual capacities alleging various negligence and wantonness claims. The employees moved for summary judgment based on state-agent immunity. The trial court granted summary judgment for the principal and one of the teachers, but denied it for the other teacher and the aide who were directly supervising the students. The employees sought review of that decision with the Alabama Supreme Court.

When claiming state-agent immunity, an employee must first show that the claim is based on a discretionary function, such as educating or supervising students. If it is, the plaintiff must show that the employee acted willfully, fraudulently, with malice, in bad faith or outside his authority. In this case, the employees were able to easily show their actions were a discretionary function, but the plaintiff claimed that they acted beyond their authority when they failed to follow the policies and procedures regarding supervision of students. The employees claimed that the policies at issue were not so detailed that they can be said to have acted beyond their authority in this case. The Court looked to the policy to see if there was any room for the employee to exercise her judgment under the circumstances. It held that the policy the aide was accused of violating regarding supervising students was not so detailed that it would prohibit her from using her discretion, but that the policies the teacher failed to follow were. The Court also appeared to place a higher burden on the teacher than the aide because the teacher was the more senior employee involved. Accordingly, the Court determined that the aide was entitled to state-agent immunity, but the teacher was not. The case will proceed against the teacher alone.

 

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

Dailey v. Monroe County Board of Education, -- So.3d --, 2017 WL 655735 (Ala.Civ.App. Feb. 17, 2017)

This is an appeal of a Students First Act termination. The board terminated the nonprobationary classified employee following a hearing. The employee, who was present at the time of the vote, filed an appeal and a hearing officer was appointed. At the hearing before the hearing officer, the board moved to supplement the record because the termination notice had been inadvertently omitted from the record. The employee objected and claimed that she had not received proper notice of the board’s decision to terminate her. The hearing officer did not rule on the motion, but ultimately upheld the board’s decision. The employee appealed.

On appeal, the employee claimed that the board’s alleged failure to send her written notice of her termination deprived her of due process. While the board conceded that the notice was inadvertently omitted from the record, it said that the employee did receive proper and timely notice. The question considered by the Court was whether the board’s failure to include the termination notice in the record was fatal. The Court determined that it was.

The board relied upon Cox. v. Mobile County Board of School Commissioners, 157 So.3d 897 (Ala.Civ.App. 2013), which found the board’s late notice did not harm the terminated teacher. While the Act’s use of the term “shall” suggested the ten-day notice was mandatory, the legislature’s intent demonstrated that it was “merely directory”. Apparently drawing a distinction between the timing of the notice and the existence of the notice, the Court found that Cox was inapplicable here and the “shall” instruction was mandatory. Furthermore, because the record did not demonstrate that notice was provided, the Court found that the hearing officer lacked jurisdiction to issue any decision in the matter. Accordingly, the Court ordered the hearing officer to dismiss the appeal in its entirety. The board, which has evidence to prove the notice was mailed, has filed an application for rehearing with the Court.

 

Alabama Attorney General’s Opinions

A.G. Opinion 2017-019 (Feb. 2, 2017)

This opinion addressed the city council’s authority to mandate specific residency requirements for board members. Since the formation of the city school system, the city council has appointed board members from each of the council’s five districts. Over time, some members have been appointed to the board to represent districts where they did not live. The council has since decided to adopt an ordinance that would require future board members be residents of the district they represent. The mayor sought an opinion regarding whether the city council had the authority to mandate residency for board members. He also asked whether the board could adopt policies which dictated the qualifications of its own members.

The Attorney General noted that municipalities have the authority to pass ordinances as long as they do not conflict with state law. State law gives city councils the authority to appoint city residents to the board without limitation, except for Class 5 municipalities which must appoint board members by district or boards that are covered by local law or constitutional amendment. Because the legislature has not given the city council that authority here, the council cannot pass an ordinance mandating such residency as a qualification for board members. Likewise, the school board has no authority to adopt a policy that would limit the qualifications for its members.

Matters of Interest

In the January 2017 Edition of Court Report, we mentioned a likely shift in certain areas as a result of a new administration in Washington. That first major shift that has an impact on public school districts came in the area of Transgender Students via a short joint Dear Colleague Letter on February 22, 2017. That letter withdrew the Obama administration guidance issued in 2016 and indicated that further review was necessary. As a result, the U.S. Supreme Court, which was set to consider this issue for the first time, decided not to hear the G.G. case. While we had hoped to have clearer guidance on these issues this year, these developments make it unlikely for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, we encourage our members to continue providing respect, support and compassion to all students, including those directly impacted by these events. Also, remember the district’s obligation to protect students from bullying, and as always, work closely with your local counsel to address requests for accommodation on a case by case basis. We will keep you updated of any developments.

The new edition of the Guidelines for Implementing the Students First Act has been published and is now available on our website. Members will receive a free copy by mail this Spring and additional copies can be purchased for $15. Other updates of the Boardmanship Series are in progress and will be published soon.

-Jayne Harrell Williams

Jayne is General Counsel &

Director of Legal Advocacy for the

Alabama Association of School Boards