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Ingle v. Adkins

Supreme Court of Alabama

November 9, 2017

Sheila Mote Ingle
v.
Jason Frank Adkins et al.

         Appeal from Walker Circuit Court (CV-16-900253)

          MAIN, Justice.

         Sheila Mote Ingle ("Ingle") appeals from an order entered by the Walker Circuit Court dismissing her claims against Jason Frank Adkins, individually and in his capacity as superintendent of the Walker County School System; the Walker County Board of Education ("the Board"); and Bradley Glenn Ingle, William Edward Gilbert, Dennis Dale Reeves, James Lynn Rigsby, and Sonia Marie Waid, members of the Board (hereinafter collectively referred to as "the Board members") (Adkins, the Board, and the Board members are hereinafter referred to collectively as "the defendants").[1] We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand.

         Facts and Procedural History

         On August 4, 2016, Ingle filed in the Walker Circuit Court a "verified petition for writ of mandamus or in the alternative for declaratory judgment" against Adkins in his individual and official capacities, the Board members in their individual and official capacities, and the Board.

         According to Ingle's petition, Adkins was elected superintendent of the Walker County School System on November 2, 2010. At the time of Adkins's election, the Board had set an annual salary of $139, 500 for the position of superintendent. During a regularly scheduled Board meeting on July 18, 2013, the Board increased Adkins's salary by 2% effective July 1, 2013. Adkins was reelected on November 4, 2014. On December 11, 2014, the Board entered into an "employment contract" with Adkins that would become effective on January 1, 2015. That contract provided a base annual salary of $159, 500, and it provided for increases in salary during Adkins's term of office. That contract also provided an in-county travel stipend of $1, 000 per month. The Board modified the contract on November 12, 2015, to increase Adkins's compensation. That modification included providing Adkins with a cellular telephone paid for by the Board, allowing Adkins to participate in outside activities that do not interfere with his duties as superintendent and that are approved by the Board, and guaranteeing that, if "this agreement be permitted to expire, " Adkins could return to a tenured position with the Walker County School System. Ingle attached three documents to her petition: (1) a copy of the minutes from the Board's July 18, 2013, meeting, (2) a copy of the December 11, 2014, "employment contract, " and (3) a copy of the November 12, 2015, modified contract.

         Ingle brought this action "in the name of the State of Alabama on the relation of Sheila Mote Ingle ... in her individual capacity as a resident citizen and taxpayer in Walker County, Alabama." Ingle sought a declaration that Adkins's July 2013 salary increase was unconstitutional, illegal, and void; that the December 2014 "employment contract" was unconstitutional, illegal, and void; and that the November 2015 modification of the employment contract was unconstitutional, illegal, and void. Ingle sought to compel the Board members "to vacate and/or rescind" the "employment contract." Further, Ingle sought to recover for the taxpayers of Walker County the allegedly illegal compensation that had already been paid to Adkins, and she sought to recover on her own behalf attorney fees. Additionally, Ingle alleged that, even if the employment contract was not determined to be unconstitutional and void, the Board had overpaid Adkins's travel stipend, and, thus, Ingle sought to recover that overpayment. Later, Ingle amended her petition to withdraw her claim for attorney fees.

         The defendants moved to dismiss Ingle's claims. The defendants argued that Ingle failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, that Ingle's claims were barred by the doctrine of immunity, and that Ingle lacked standing to pursue her claims.

         On April 10, 2017, the circuit court issued an order dismissing Ingle's claims, which stated as follows:

"This cause coming before the Court on the Motion To Dismiss the Defendants individually and in their official capacity and with the same being set for a hearing on April 5, 2017. The hearing was attended by the attorneys representing the parties and some parties. The attorneys made arguments to the Court and presented documents and briefs contained in the file. The Court having considered the arguments, documents and briefs and law presented, it is the opinion of the Court that the Motion To Dismiss should be granted; therefore, it is ORDERED, ADJUDGED, and DECREED by the Court that the Motion To Dismiss is GRANTED as to all defendants, individually and in their official capacity."
(Capitalization in original.) Ingle appealed.
Standard of Review
"A ruling on a motion to dismiss is reviewed without a presumption of correctness. Nance v. Matthews, 622 So.2d 297, 299 (Ala. 1993). This Court must accept the allegations of the complaint as true. Creola Land Dev., Inc. v. Bentbrooke Housing, L.L.C., 828 So.2d 285, 288 (Ala. 2002). Furthermore, in reviewing a ruling on a motion to dismiss we will not consider whether the pleader will ultimately prevail but whether the pleader may possibly prevail. Nance, 622 So.2d at 299."

Newman v. Savas, 878 So.2d 1147, 1148-49 (Ala. 2003).

         Discussion

         On appeal, Ingle concedes that her claims against the Board are due to be dismissed on the basis of immunity. She also admits that she "may not seek damages or to otherwise impose civil liability on the individual Board members on account of those acts which have already occurred." Ingle's brief, at 19. Further, Ingle acknowledges that she may not have standing "to recover monies which have already been illegally expended, " and she does not set forth any argument regarding the circuit court's dismissal of her claims concerning recovery of compensation that has already been paid to Adkins. Id. at 26. However, Ingle continues to seek to enjoin future payments under Adkins's current employment agreement with the Board, which Ingle claims is an illegal contract. Thus, on appeal, the issue is whether Ingle can pursue a claim against the Board members and Adkins in their individual and/or official capacities to declare Adkins's current contract illegal and to enjoin future payments from public funds pursuant to that contract.

         First, we hold that the circuit court properly dismissed the claims against Adkins and the Board members in their individual capacities because "a suit for injunctive relief against a State official in his or her individual capacity would be meaningless. This is so, because State officials act for and represent the State only in their official capacities." Ex parte Dickson, 46 So.3d 468, 474 (Ala. 2010).

         Now, we must decide whether Ingle can pursue claims against the Board members and Adkins in their official capacities to declare that Adkins's current contract is illegal and to enjoin payments under that contract going forward. Specifically, we must decide whether those claims are barred by the doctrine of immunity and whether Ingle has standing to pursue those claims.

         Concerning immunity, this Court has stated that, "[b]ecause county boards of education are local agencies of the State, they are clothed in constitutional immunity from suit." Ex parte Hale Cty. Bd. of Educ., 14 So.3d 844, 848 (Ala. 2009). Further,

"'[u]nder Article 1, § 14, Alabama Constitution of 1901, "the State and its agencies have absolute immunity from suit in any court." Phillips v. Thomas, 555 So.2d 81, 83 (Ala. 1989); see also Taylor v. Troy State University, 437 So.2d 472, 474 (Ala. 1983). ... "State officers and employees, in their official capacities and individually, are also absolutely immune from suit when the action is, in effect, one against the state." Phillips v. Thomas, 555 So.2d at 83; see Taylor v. Troy State University, 437 So.2d at 474.'
"Williams v. John C. Calhoun Cmty. Coll., 646 So.2d 1, 2 (Ala. 1994).
"'"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 ...

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