Released for Publication August 14, 2014.
Appeal from Madison Circuit Court. (CV-12-901117). James P. Smith, Trial Judge.
Thompson, P.J., and Thomas and Donaldson, JJ., concur. Moore, J., concurs in the result, without writing.
Shirley Taylor, a tenured teacher who had been employed by the Huntsville City Board of Education (" the Board" ) for 18 years before the Board dismissed her from employment on March 2, 2012, appeals from a judgment of the Madison Circuit Court granting the Board's petition for a common-law writ of certiorari to the administrative law judge (" ALJ" ) who reviewed the Board's decision and quashing the ALJ's order requiring the Board to provide Taylor with a pretermination hearing, pursuant to § 16-24C-6(b), Ala. Code 1975, a part of the Students First Act of 2011, § 16-24C-1 et seq., Ala. Code 1975 (" the Act" ). We reverse the judgment.
Factual and Procedural Background
Taylor is a 56-year-old third-grade teacher who had been employed by the Board since 1994. Before becoming a teacher, Taylor had been in active-duty military service with the United States Army for 12 years, including a deployment
to the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Storm. She remained in the Army Reserve while she was a teacher and retired from the Army in 2008 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
On February 10, 2012, the Board mailed two letters to Taylor; one letter was sent by certified mail, return receipt requested, and the other by regular, first-class mail. The letters informed Taylor that the Board proposed to terminate her employment, stated the grounds for termination, and advised her that she had 15 days to request a hearing and contest the proposed termination, failing which, the letter stated, the Board would vote on her dismissal at a meeting on March 1, 2012. The Board, not having received by March 1, 2012, a request from Taylor for a hearing, voted that day to terminate her employment. On March 2, 2012, the Board hand-delivered a letter to Taylor at the school where she was employed, informing her of the Board's decision to terminate her employment, and had her escorted from the campus.
Taylor denied that she had received a notice-of-proposed-termination letter and requested that the Board rescind its vote to terminate her employment and grant her a hearing. The Board denied that request. On March 15, 2012, Taylor appealed directly to the Chief Administrative Law Judge of the Office of Administrative Hearings, Division of Administrative Law Judges, Office of the Attorney General, pursuant to § 16-24C-12, Ala. Code 1975, alleging that the Board had failed to provide her with notice and a hearing before it terminated her employment.
The Board responded, asserting that it had complied with the notice provision of
the Act, specifically with § 16-24C-6(k), Ala. Code 1975, which provides:
" Unless otherwise provided, notice for all purposes under this chapter shall be given by United States mail, certified delivery, by private mail carrier for next business day delivery, or by physical delivery to the employee or the last known address of the employee. Notice by certified mail or private mail carrier shall be deemed received by the employee and complete for purposes of this chapter two business days after the notice is deposited for certified delivery in the United States mail or placed with a private mail carrier for next business day delivery. The employer has the burden of producing evidence that service was [e]ffected in the manner permitted by this chapter, but the employee has the burden of proving that such service was not properly made."
(Emphasis added.) The Board maintained that it had satisfied the requirements of § 16-24C-6(k) by depositing the notice of proposed termination in the mail for certified delivery, and, it contended, it had also taken extra steps to ensure that Taylor was notified of the proposed termination of her employment by sending an additional letter by regular, first-class mail.
The ALJ conducted a hearing on June 18, 2012, at which it received documentary and testimonial evidence. Taylor presented her own testimony as well as the testimony of her neighbors, Quirante Hereford and Andrew Coe. The Board presented the testimony of Belinda Williams, the director of human resources for the Huntsville City School System (" HCSS" ), and Lisa Teague, Williams's administrative assistant. On August 6, 2012, the ALJ rendered a comprehensive, 29-page order requiring the Board to provide Taylor with a hearing. In its findings of fact, the ALJ stated:
" Taylor denied receiving both the certified mail letter and the letter sent by first class mail. Taylor testified that given her military background, she is conscientious of deadlines. Had she received the letter, she would have immediately sought help from her local Alabama Education Association. Underscoring her testimony was the fact [that,] immediately following the notice of her dismissal, she sought assistance directly after being escorted from the school.
" Prior to voting upon Taylor's dismissal, neither the Board, nor anyone at HCSS checked on the tracking of the certified mail letter to determine whether or not delivery had been accomplished, despite the fact that the Board [had] paid an additional fee for a return receipt of the February 10, 2012, letter and had access to tracking of the certified mail letter. Belinda Williams, the Director of Human Resources for HCSS, inquired only whether Taylor [had] filed a notice of contest on or before February 29, 2012, but did not confirm that a return receipt had been issued for the certified mail; she did not attempt to track the certified mail through the United States Postal Service [('USPS')] website; and she did not confirm that Taylor [had] received the letter through any other source. No attempt was made to hand deliver the letter to Taylor at the school, even though Taylor taught on campus daily and the school provided a mail box for each teacher, which Taylor checked at least three or four times a day. No one verbally confirmed Taylor's awareness of the pending action.
" The [USPS] provides user-friendly methods for tracking certified mail through every routed ...