Appeal from Montgomery Circuit Court (CV-13-900848)
The Alabama State Personnel Board ("the board") appeals from a judgment of the Montgomery Circuit Court ("the circuit court") reversing an order of the board that upheld the dismissal of Margaret D. McGowan from her employment with the Alabama Department of Finance ("the DOF"). We reverse the circuit court's judgment and remand the cause with instructions.
In 2012, the DOF dismissed McGowan from her position as a staff accountant in the Comptroller's Office, a division of the DOF, for insubordination and failure to perform her job properly. Thereafter, McGowan appealed to the board, which assigned her appeal to an administrative-law judge ("the ALJ"). The ALJ held an evidentiary hearing and subsequently issued an order recommending that the DOF's decision to dismiss McGowan be upheld. The board concurred with the ALJ's recommendation and issued an order upholding the DOF's decision to dismiss McGowan. McGowan then sought judicial review of the board's order in the circuit court. Following a hearing, the circuit court entered a judgment reversing the order of the board on the ground that it was not supported by sufficient evidence. The board then timely appealed to this court.
"The standard of appellate review to be applied by the circuit courts and by this court in reviewing the decisions of administrative agencies is the same. See Alabama Dep't of Youth Servs. v. State Pers. Bd., 7 So.3d 380, 384 (Ala. Civ. App. 2008). That prevailing standard is deferential toward the decision of the agency:
"'Judicial review of an agency's administrative decision is limited to determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence, whether the agency's actions were reasonable, and whether its actions were within its statutory and constitutional powers.... Judicial review is also limited by the presumption of correctness which attaches to a decision by an administrative agency.'
"Alabama Medicaid Agency v. Peoples, 549 So.2d 504, 506 (Ala. Civ. App. 1989). Also, the Alabama Administrative Procedure Act provides that,
"'[e]xcept where judicial review is by trial de novo, the agency 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, except where otherwise authorized by statute.'
"Ala. Code 1975, § 41–22–20(k). 'Neither this court nor the trial court may substitute its judgment for that of the administrative agency.' Alabama Renal Stone Inst., Inc. v. Alabama Statewide Health Coordinating Council, 628 So.2d 821, 823 (Ala. Civ. App. 1993). 'This holds true even in cases where the testimony is generalized, the evidence is meager, and reasonable minds might differ as to the correct result.' Health Care Auth. of Huntsville v. State Health Planning Agency, 549 So.2d 973, 975 (Ala. Civ. App. 1989).
"Further, this court does not apply a presumption of correctness to a circuit court's judgment entered on review of an administrative agency's decision 'because the circuit court is in no better position to review an agency's decision than this court.' Alabama Bd. of Nursing v. Peterson, 976 So.2d 1028, 1033 (Ala. Civ. App. 2007). Finally, in order for the Board's decision to uphold the termination of an employee to warrant affirmance, that decision would have to be supported by 'substantial evidence, ' which in an administrative context is 'relevant evidence that a reasonable mind would view as sufficient to support the determination.' Ex parte Personnel Bd. of Jefferson County, 648 So.2d 593, 594 (Ala. Civ. App. 1994)."
Alabama State Pers. Bd. v. Dueitt, 50 So.3d 480, 482 (Ala. Civ. App. 2010).
The board first argues that the circuit court erred in concluding that the board's order was not supported by sufficient evidence. We agree.
At the evidentiary hearing held by the ALJ, Pamela Harris, McGowan's supervisor from 2009 until McGowan's dismissal in 2012, testified on behalf of the DOF, and the DOF introduced 29 exhibits. Harris's testimony and the DOF's exhibits tended to prove the following. During her employment in the Comptroller's Office, McGowan's job responsibilities included auditing and processing claims ("mental-commitment claims") from probate courts seeking reimbursement from the State for the costs of involuntary-mental-commitment proceedings adjudicated by those courts. Sometime before April 2011, the Comptroller's Office employed a part-time employee ("the part-time employee") to assist with a pending lawsuit. The part-time employee also assisted McGowan with auditing and processing the mental-commitment claims and assisted other full-time employees of the Comptroller's Office with their work. In April 2011, the part-time employee was laid off. When the part-time employee was laid off, McGowan indicated that she felt that the part-time employee's work had been dumped on her despite the fact that auditing and processing the mental-commitment claims had been part of McGowan's job responsibilities before the part-time employee had been hired and continued to be one of McGowan's job responsibilities while the part-time employee was employed by the Comptroller's Office.
McGowan had performed her job well before the part-time employee was laid off; however, after the part-time employee was laid off, McGowan's job performance deteriorated dramatically, she became uncooperative with her coworkers, and she exhibited a defiant attitude when given instructions and guidance by Harris. McGowan fell behind in processing the mental-commitment claims, and, by January 2012, there was a backlog of approximately 1, 300 claims. As a result, Harris imposed a corrective-action plan on McGowan in January 2012. In the written ...