Appeal from Montgomery Circuit Court. (CV-93-1870). Eugene Reese, TRIAL JUDGE.
Rehearing Denied June 2, 1995. Certiorari Denied September 1, 1995. Released for Publication March 2, 1996.
Yates, Judge, Robertson, P.j., and Thigpen, Monroe, and Crawley, JJ., concur.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Yates
On December 17, 1992, the State Department of Revenue terminated Rebecca Wells from her employment as chief of the budget and administration division. After an investigation, the Department found that Wells had made unauthorized disclosures of confidential taxpayer information to various officials outside the Department, in violation of the Department's "Standards of Conduct."
Wells appealed the Department's decision to the State Personnel Board. A hearing was held, during which the parties presented substantial oral testimony from numerous witnesses. The hearing officer concluded that several statutes and Department regulations regarding disclosure of taxpayer information were in conflict, creating uncertainty as to what information an employee could reveal. He found that the Department "was not justified in terminating [Wells]" and recommended "that the action of the appointing authority in terminating [Wells] be reversed." The Board, however, entered an order contrary to the recommendation of the hearing officer, concluding as a matter of law that "the dismissal charge ... is supported by the evidence and ... the termination is warranted." It found that the Department's Standards of Conduct were "clear and consistent" and not in conflict with related statutes.
Wells petitioned for rehearing, which the Board denied. From that order, Wells appealed to the circuit court. The Alabama State Employees' Association, in the interim, requested and was allowed to intervene on Wells's behalf. Thereafter, the circuit court reversed the Board's decision, ordering the Department to reinstate Wells to her former position, with all benefits, including back pay, annual pay, sick pay, and retirement time.
The Department appeals, contending: (1) that there was sufficient evidence before the trial court to uphold the Board's decision; (2) that the trial court substituted its judgment for that of the Board and thereby erred; (3) that the Department's confidentiality policy is neither overbroad nor vague and does not conflict with confidentiality statutes; and (4) that Wells does not have a right under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution to disclose confidential taxpayer information.
In reviewing a judgment of the Board, the trial court must determine whether the judgment is supported by substantial legal evidence. State Hwy. Dep't v. State Personnel Bd., 628 So. 2d 878 (Ala. Civ. App. 1993). Further,
"Unless judicial review is by trial de novo, the Board's order 'shall be taken as prima facie just and reasonable and the court shall not substitute its judgment for that of the agency as to the weight of the evidence on questions of fact....' Ala. Code 1975, § 41-22-20(k). This court's review on appeal is the same as that of the trial court."
However, where, as here, the facts are undisputed and the Board adopts the hearing officer's findings of fact, but decides as a matter of law that the hearing officer's recommendation is incorrect, no such presumption attaches to the Board's decision. "The court may reverse or modify the decision or grant other appropriate relief from the agency action ... if substantial rights of the petitioner have been prejudiced because the agency action is ... (5) Affected by other error of law." § 41-22-20(k), Ala. Code 1975. See Alabama Public Service Commission v. C.I.M. Trucking, Inc., 585 So. 2d 1343 (Ala. 1991).
The Department's contentions that it presented substantial evidence to mandate affirmance of the Board's order and that the trial court substituted its judgment for that of the Board is misplaced. We find no error in the trial court's judgment. The facts were not in dispute, and the trial court correctly concluded that ...