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Woodfin v. Bender

Supreme Court of Alabama

March 31, 2017

Randall Woodfin et al.
General Bender et al.

         Appeal from Jefferson Circuit Court (CV-11-904600)

          MAIN, JUSTICE.

         Members of the Birmingham Board of Education and the superintendent of the Birmingham City School System (hereinafter collectively referred to as "the defendants") appeal the Jefferson Circuit Court's judgment in favor of 24 "classified employees"[1] of the Birmingham Board of Education (hereinafter collectively referred to as "the plaintiffs").[2]The trial court held that the plaintiffs' salaries had been miscalculated and awarded them monetary relief. The defendants argue, among other things, that they are entitled to immunity from the plaintiffs' claims. We agree that the defendants are entitled to immunity. For that reason, the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction, and its judgment is void. Accordingly, we dismiss the appeal.

         Facts and Procedural History

         On December 30, 2011, numerous classified employees of the Birmingham Board of Education ("the Board") sued the Board, the Board's members in their official capacities, and the superintendent of the Birmingham City School System, in his official capacity. The plaintiffs claimed that when the Board adopted a new salary schedule in August 2004, existing employees, including the plaintiffs, were not reassigned to the proper "steps" on the new salary schedule and, thus, that their wages were miscalculated. Specifically, in their amended complaint, the plaintiffs alleged:

"... Defendants adopted a new pay schedule about August of 2004.
"... The [Board] instituted a policy of assigning employees to pay steps correspondent to the total number of years of service. Through the implementation of the new schedule and pay policy, defendants determine salary rates on the basis of total years of experience.
"... Defendants did not implement the new pay schedule with existing employees who occupied positions encompassed by the new pay schedule and policy in August 2004. Rather, the defendants continued to pay plaintiffs at their present rates of pay that did not recognize their years of experience.
"... With the implementation of the new 16-step pay schedule, defendants failed to make corresponding adjustments to plaintiffs' step assignments to reflect prior experience in the like manner to the pay rates set for the new supervisory hires or their newly promoted peers. As a result, defendants place the newly hired or newly promoted personnel at pay steps above the veteran employees. Hence, the new hires and newly promoted employees now make substantially more money than their more experienced peers.
"... Despite numerous meetings and discussions with the defendants pointing out the mistake and the obvious pay inequity, the defendants have stubbornly, willfully, arbitrarily and maliciously refused to adjust plaintiffs' salary to reflect total years of experience. Defendants have made no effort to correct the ministerial error of assigning plaintiffs to the proper pay step to reflect years of experience."

         It is undisputed that in August 2004 the Board implemented a new salary schedule that included multiple pay "steps." The then current employees were placed on the step of the new salary schedule that most closely approximated their then current pay, and none of those employees received a reduction in pay. The plaintiffs argued that current employees were assigned to a step on the new salary schedule that most closely corresponded to their then current rate of pay. They argued that each employee should have been assigned to the step that directly corresponded to his or her years of experience, which, they say, would have resulted in a significant pay increase for each of the plaintiffs. According to the plaintiffs, the Board's official policy stated that an employee's "step" on the new pay schedule must correspond to the employee's total years of experience. Further, according to the plaintiffs, assigning each employee to the step that corresponded with his or her years of experience was a ministerial act, and the defendants had no discretion in determining each employee's salary step. The plaintiffs contended that, because the defendants did not assign the plaintiffs to "steps" that corresponded to their years of experience, the plaintiffs' salaries were miscalculated and incorrect payments were made on their behalfs to the Retirement System of Alabama, which resulted in reduced pension benefits for the plaintiffs.

         The plaintiffs' claims are based on the following language found in the "introduction" to the salary schedule that was first adopted by the Board in August 2004:

"Certified salaries (teacher) in the salary schedule are based on years of experience, degree/certification and/or assignment. Effective February 1, 1996, certified employees (teachers) were approved to be paid on their highest degree, regardless of the teaching assignment. Years of experience are categorized as 'STEPS' on the schedule. Experience for teachers will be granted based on public education in this system, other public education experience in the State of Alabama, or other public education experience outside the state. It is the responsibility of the employee to submit the appropriate information pertaining to experience, degree/certification and to verify the receipt of the accurate salary."

(Emphasis added.)

         In their complaint, the plaintiffs requested declaratory, mandamus, and injunctive relief. Specifically, the plaintiffs requested that the defendants be directed to pay the plaintiffs at the proper rate of pay reflecting their years of experience, that the trial court "issue a declaratory judgment finding that the defendants' purported actions of inequitably paying [the plaintiffs] shall be corrected such that all employees' salaries shall be based upon their years of experience, " and that the trial court "declare[] that the plaintiffs are entitled to back pay and adjustment of their current salary to reflect years of service." Further, the plaintiffs alleged that the "defendants' actions constitute unlawful, unreasonable, capricious, and arbitrary conduct and represent an abuse of the defendants' official power and discretion" and that "the Board's failure and refusal to establish proper salary schedules which include length of service steps for all classes of employees does not entail a discretionary act but rather is the ignoring of a duty exacted by law."

         The trial court dismissed the Board from the case on the basis of State immunity but allowed the action to proceed against the defendants in their official capacities. After conducting a bench trial, the trial court found that the plaintiffs' salaries had been miscalculated and awarded them the monetary relief they requested. The defendants appealed.


         On appeal, the defendants argue, among other things, that they are entitled to immunity from the plaintiffs' claims. The plaintiffs respond that "the Birmingham Board of Education must follow its own duly adopted salary schedule. An employee can sue when the school system fails to do that; and immunity does not bar monetary relief in such a case." Plaintiffs' brief, at 30. Further, the plaintiffs argue that "state sovereign immunity does not bar an order against official capacity defendants, regarding proper payment for work actually performed, including proper placement on the salary schedule." Id., at 34.

         "[T]he State of Alabama shall never be made a defendant in any court of law or equity." Article I, § 14, Ala. Const. 1901. "Section 14 immunity is more than a defense; when applicable, it divests the trial courts of this State of subject-matter jurisdiction." Alabama State Univ. v. Danley, [Ms. 1140907, April 8, 2016] ___ So. 3d___, ___ (Ala. 2016).

         Concerning § 14 immunity, this Court has stated:

"'The wall of immunity erected by § 14 is nearly impregnable. Sanders Lead Co. v. Levine, 370 F.Supp. 1115, 1117 (M.D. Ala. 1973); Taylor v. Troy State Univ., 437 So.2d 472, 474 (Ala. 1983); Hutchinson v. Board of Trustees of Univ. of Alabama, 288 Ala. 20, 24, 256 So.2d 281, 284 (1971). This immunity may not be waived. Larkins v. Department of Mental Health & Mental Retardation, 806 So.2d 358, 363 (Ala. 2001) ("The State is immune from suit, and its immunity cannot be waived by the Legislature or by any other State authority."); Druid City Hosp. Bd. v. Epperson, 378 So.2d 696 (Ala. 1979) (same); Opinion of the Justices No. 69, 247 Ala. 195, 23 So.2d 505 (1945) (same); see also Dunn Constr. Co. v. State Bd. of Adjustment, 234 Ala. 372, 175 So. 383 (1937). "This means not only that the state itself may not be sued, but that this cannot be indirectly accomplished by suing its officers or agents in their official capacity, when a result favorable to plaintiff would be directly to affect the financial status of the state treasury." State Docks Comm'n v. Barnes, 225 Ala. 403, 405, 143 So. 581, 582 (1932) (emphasis added); see also Southall v. Stricos Corp., 275 Ala. 156, 153 So.2d 234 (1963).'
"Patterson v. Gladwin Corp., 835 So.2d 137, 142 (Ala. 2002)."

Alabama Agric. & Mech. Univ. v. Jones, 895 So.2d 867, 872-73 (Ala. ...

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