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November 2015 Court Report

13-Nov-2015

Read the November 2015 issue of Court Report, which includes a report on such topics as immunity, race discrimination and employee termination. Click the case names to read the complete opinions. This newsletter is an ACSBA member benefit.

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November 2015 Issue of Court Report

Alabama Supreme Court
  • Immunity – Employee Termination

Ex parte Hampton, -- So.3d --, 2015 WL 5725102 (Ala. Sept. 30, 2015)

This case involved the termination of a counselor pursuant to the now repealed Teacher Tenure Act. While there appears to be some question regarding the employee’s tenure status, the superintendent ultimately recommended her termination pursuant to the Teacher Tenure Act based on justifiable decrease in positions. The employee did not contest the recommendation and the board voted to approve her termination. She later applied for a vacant teaching position, but was not hired.

The employee filed a lawsuit in circuit court against the superintendent and board in their official capacities claiming she had been terminated as a result of a reduction in force and therefore was entitled to the teaching position for which she applied after her termination. The defendants denied that the employee was terminated pursuant to a RIF and moved for summary judgment on the grounds that they were entitled to absolute immunity. The trial court denied summary judgment and the defendants filed a petition for writ of mandamus with the Alabama Supreme Court.

The Court first addressed the defendants’ claims of absolute immunity and affirmed that county board members and their members enjoy the same protections as state agencies and state officials. The Court also noted the six so-called “exceptions” to absolute immunity, including the three at issue here: (1) actions brought to compel officials to perform their legal duties, (2) actions sought to compel officials to perform ministerial acts, and (3) actions brought where officials have acted fraudulently, in bad faith, beyond their authority or in a mistaken interpretation of the law. The Court agreed with the defendants that none of the “exceptions” applied as there was no legal duty to rehire the employee, the act sought was discretionary and not ministerial, and the defendants were not acting under a mistaken interpretation of law.

The Court next noted that, even though the employee was terminated based on decreased funding, the board never declared a RIF and the employee was not terminated pursuant to a RIF. As such, she had no rights to be recalled to the open teaching position. Because the employee could not establish that her claims fell within an exception to absolute immunity, her claims could not survive. The Court held that the defendants were entitled to absolute immunity and ordered the trial court to enter summary judgment on all claims.

Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals

  • Race Discrimination – Employee Termination

Flowers v. Troup County School District, --So.3d--, 2015 WL 6081186 (11th Cir. Oct. 16, 2015)

This case involved the termination of the African-American head football coach from a high school. The coach brought suit against the district, superintendent and board members for race discrimination pursuant to Title VII, Sections 1981 and 1983 and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The defendants argued that the coach was fired for recruiting violations, but the coach denied the allegations and argued that he was singled out while white coaches accused of similar infractions went unpunished. The trial court noted that the summary judgment could be denied if the coach showed (1) that the district’s reason for termination was pretextual and not worthy of belief, (2) that similarly situated employees were treated better than the coach, or (3) that the circumstantial evidence presented would allow a jury to conclude the decision was based on the coach’s race. The trial court rejected the coach’s efforts to establish that there was no recruiting violation finding that the district could prevail even if its rationale was “dead wrong”, as long as it honestly believed the allegations to be true at the time of the decision to terminate the coach. The trial court also rejected the coach’s claims that he was treated more harshly than white coaches accused of recruiting violations. The trial court found the white coaches were not similarly situated because the allegations against them were much less severe. Finally, the trial court found the coach could not construct a “convincing mosaic of circumstantial evidence” that could lead a reasonable jury to find he was terminated because of his race. The trial court granted summary judgment to all defendants and the coach appealed.

The only issue on appeal was whether the coach presented sufficient evidence that the district’s reason for terminating him was pretextual. The Court considered each of the three methods the coach could establish the reason for termination was pretextual. The Court criticized the district’s handling of the investigation and termination, but found that the coach presented no evidence that the “ham-handed investigation and actions singling out” the coach were based on his race. The Court reiterated that employers could fire an employee for a good reason, a bad reason or a mistaken reason as long as it was not discriminatory. While the court may have been able to establish that the district’s reason was mistaken, he failed to meet his burden of proving it was based on his race. The Court also considered the coach’s arguments that the district gave inconsistent reasons for his termination, but the Court found this also insufficient to defeat summary judgment. The Court noted that at one time it was sufficient to simply contradict the proffered reasons, but this was no longer sufficient. Finally, the Court looked to the coach’s claims that two white coaches received more favorable treatment when accused of recruiting violations. The Court noted that the conduct of comparators had to be nearly identical to the plaintiff’s conduct so courts were not “confusing apples and oranges”. The Court found the allegations against the coach much more severe than that of the comparators. Accordingly, they were not similarly situated comparators which could establish race discrimination.

The Court concluded that while the extensive and complicated record before it may have indicated a question of fact as to whether the termination was fair, there was no evidence that it was discriminatory. Absent evidence of illegal discrimination, the Court held that it had no authority to second-guess the business decisions of the district and affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

Items of Note

Bonds v. State, --So.3d--, 2015 WL 5511511 (Ala.Crim.App. Sept. 18, 2015)

This was a criminal case which involved a school resource officer arrested under the law prohibiting school employees from engaging in sex with students under the age of 19. The defendant argued that he was not a “school employee”, but rather was employed by the city which assigned him to the high school. While the relevant statute, Ala. Code§13A-6-80, does not define “school employee”, it does list examples which include teachers, school administrators, student teachers, safety or resource officers, coaches and other employees. The Court noted that by providing this non-exhaustive list, which may include volunteer or unpaid persons, the legislature clearly did not intend to limit the term “school employee” to a traditional or technical definition of those merely employed by the board. Rather, the legislature intended to prevent those persons who have influence over students in the school setting from engaging in sex with students. Accordingly, the Court of Criminal Appeals held that the defendant was a school employee.

Horwitz v. Kirby, -- So.3d --, 2015 WL 5725127 (Ala. Sept. 30, 2015)

This case involved school board elections in Tuscaloosa and the impact of votes by local university students. The losing candidate filed a lawsuit contesting the election results claiming hundreds of votes cast by university students were illegal based on the students’ lack of residency and other allegations. Specifically, the candidate claimed that the students had not resided in the district for 30 days prior to the vote as required by state law. The trial court rejected the losing candidate’s claims and she appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court. The Court agreed with the losing candidate and found that multiple ballots were illegally cast. The Court remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

 

Jayne Harrell Williams

Jayne is General Counsel & Director of Legal Advocacy for the Alabama Association of School Board

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