January 2018 Court Report
Read the January 2018 issue of Court Report, which includes cases involving elected superintendent contracts, Students First Act and discrimination. Click the case names to read the complete opinions. This newsletter is an ACSBA member benefit.
January 2018 Issue of Court Report
Click the links to read the complete opinions!
Alabama Supreme Court
- Elected Superintendents – Immunity & Standing
Ingle v. Adkins , -- So.3d --, 2017 WL 5185288 (Nov. 9, 2017)
This case involved a challenge to an elected superintendent’s compensation. The superintendent was elected in 2010 at a set annual salary. Three years later during the same term, the board approved a raise. The superintendent was reelected in 2014 and entered into an employment contract with the board, which provided for a base salary, raises and a travel allowance. A 2015 modification gave the superintendent a salary increase and other monetary and non-monetary benefits. A citizen sued the board as well as the board members and superintendent, in their official and individual capacities, alleging the salary increases and employment contract were void. She sought repayment of the increases to the county taxpayers. The defendants moved to dismiss the petition on various grounds, including immunity and lack of standing. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss and the citizen appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court.
On appeal, the citizen dropped most of her claims and only pursued her claims regarding the legality of the 2014 employment contract and the payments still due to the superintendent under that contract. The Court first rejected the remaining individual capacity claims because injunctive relief can only be provided in their official capacities. The Court next considered whether the defendants were entitled to immunity in their official capacities, specifically examining whether the injunctive relief was sought because the defendants had acted “fraudulently, in bad faith, beyond their authority or in a mistaken interpretation of law.” The Court determined that the remaining claims regarding the validity of the superintendent’s contract fell squarely within this exception to the defendants’ immunity and the trial court should consider the merits of the citizen’s claim regarding the contract. Finally, the Court considered whether the citizen had taxpayer standing to file the petition. The Court noted that citizens have standing to challenge future illegal spending by officials as taxpayers have an equitable ownership in public funds. Accordingly, the Court held that the citizen had sufficient standing to pursue her remaining claims. The Court remanded the case back to the trial court to consider the citizen’s claims regarding the legality of the employment contract.
Alabama Court of Civil Appeals
- Students First Act – Standard of Review
Lawson State Community College v. Mitchell, -- So.3d --, 2017 WL 5943202 (Ala.Civ.App. Dec. 1, 2017)
This is an appeal of a Students First Act termination. While this case originates from a community college rather than a public school board, both systems
use the Students First Act. This case involved an employee assigned to the Athletics Department at a community college. One of the employee’s duties
was to submit insurance claims to the college’s insurance company when student-athletes were injured. At one point, the employee refused to submit
a particular claim because she believed the athlete was not eligible for coverage. When asked to forward the claim form to another employee for processing,
she said the form “was trash, so she threw it away”. The college’s vice president in charge of personnel matters made several attempts to resolve the
issue to no avail, including meeting with the employee. During the meeting, the employee was described as defensive, arrogant and blatantly disrespectful.
Despite having no disciplinary history, the vice president ultimately recommended the employee’s termination for insubordination, failure to perform
her duties in a satisfactory manner and other good and just cause pursuant to the Students First Act. The college president conducted the termination
hearing and adopted the recommendation to terminate the employee. She appealed to a hearing officer, who accepted the factual findings, but overturned
the termination as arbitrary and capricious, relying upon the Court’s holding in Ex parte Lambert, 199 So.3d
761 (Ala. 2015). The hearing officer ordered the college to consider a lesser penalty. The college appealed.
On appeal, the college argued that the hearing officer did not give proper deference to the college’s decision to terminate. The Court noted that the hearing
officer accepted the college’s factual findings against the employee, but set out factors that he believed mitigated the employee’s conduct, including
her previously clean record, lack of malice and the lack of mental anguish suffered by the vice president in the meeting with the employee—a
factor which the Court found irrelevant to the college’s ultimate decision. The Court determined that the decisionmaker—the board in K12 matters
and the college president in post-secondary matters—was the entity responsible for determining the facts and the proper penalty. The hearing
officer can only reverse and remand for lesser punishment if he finds the decision arbitrary or capricious. The Court held that the president’s decision
was not “so unreasonable as to ‘shock the sense of justice and indicate lack of fair and careful consideration’”. Quoting J.F. Ingram State Tech. Coll. v. Carter,
227 So.3d 499, 509 (Ala.Civ.App. 2017). Absent such a finding, the hearing officer exceeded his authority. The Court reversed the hearing officer’s
decision and reinstated the president’s decision to terminate. The employee did not appeal the Court’s decision.
Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals
- Title VII – Race Discrimination & Retaliation
Brown v. Shelby County Board of Education, -- F.Appx. --, 2017 WL 6462993 (11th Cir. Dec. 19, 2017)
This case involved a teacher who unsuccessfully applied for 11 administrative positions with his employer over the course of four years. The teacher claimed
he was passed over for less qualified white candidates and/or retaliated against for filing an EEOC charge. The teacher sued the board for race discrimination
and retaliation pursuant to Title VII and Section 1981. On summary judgment, the board offered legitimate, nondiscriminatory and nonretaliatory reasons
for the hiring decisions it made. The teacher failed to establish that the board’s reasons were pretextual and the trial court granted summary judgment
in favor of the board. The teacher appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.
The teacher claimed he was more qualified than the candidates hired, but the Court disagreed noting that the teacher must show that he is so much more
qualified than the successful candidate that no reasonable person would hire them. Here, the Court found that those hired were both objectively and
subjectively more qualified than the teacher. The teacher also claimed that two administrators had demonstrated racial animus as one admitted using
a racial slur at some unspecified point in his life and another had posted a photo of himself in a hoodie soon after the Trayvon Martin verdict. The
Court rejected that evidence finding that neither incident was related to the hiring decisions nor were they directed at this teacher. Finally, the
teacher pointed to the lack of black males employed as administrators during one school year and an accreditation entity instructing the board to implement
a minority recruiting plan. Again, the Court rejected this argument finding that it did not demonstrate that the board’s hiring process was discriminatory.
The Court made similar findings with respect to the teacher’s retaliation claims. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the summary judgment and ruled in
favor of the board.
-Jayne Harrell Williams
Jayne is General Counsel &
Director of Legal Advocacy for the
Alabama Association of School Boards