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Lawson State Community College v. Mitchell

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

December 1, 2017

Lawson State Community College
Helen D. Mitchell

          THOMPSON, Presiding Judge.

         Lawson State Community College ("Lawson State") appeals from a decision of the hearing officer appointed pursuant to the Students First Act of 2011 ("the SFA"), § 16-24C-1 et seq., Ala. Code 1975. The hearing officer's decision overturned the termination of Helen D. Mitchell's employment at Lawson State on the ground that the termination was arbitrary and capricious.

         The record before us indicates the following. Mitchell was an administrative assistant in Lawson State's athletic department, having been hired for that position in August 2004. There is no dispute that, until the actions made the basis of this matter, Mitchell had performed her job well. At the time of the incidents that led to the termination of Mitchell's employment, Carlton Rice, Lawson State's athletic director, was her immediate supervisor. Sharon Crews was Lawson State's vice president for administrative services and served as its senior personnel officer. Dr. Perry W. Ward was the president of Lawson State, and he served as the hearing officer during Mitchell's termination hearing.

         According to Mitchell's job description, a copy of which was admitted at the termination hearing, one of her duties was to "coordinate with Bob McCloskey Insurance for payments and claims for athletes." Bob McCloskey Insurance is the broker that procured the insurance policy ("the policy") used by the Alabama Community College Conference, which includes Lawson State, for their student athletes. At the termination hearing, Crews testified that Lawson State paid the premiums for coverage of its student athletes. The cost of the premiums was determined by the number of players on each of Lawson State's athletic teams. Crews said that the student whose claim was at issue ("the student") was included in that number when the premium was paid for the policy. Crews testified that the student was a covered person under the policy. The policy itself does not contain any language that would suggest that the student was ineligible for coverage under the policy.

         In her role as insurance coordinator, Mitchell was to assist in processing insurance claims for student athletes who were injured. Evidence in the record, which is largely undisputed, indicates that Mitchell received an insurance claim ("the claim") from the student, who was attending Lawson State on an athletic scholarship. At all times relevant to this matter, the student was enrolled at Lawson State as a student athlete. Crews testified that Rice informed her that Mitchell had not filed the claim, and Crews told him to tell Mitchell to please file it. On November 15, 2016, Rice sent an e-mail to Mitchell telling her that it was "okay" for her to file the claim. Mitchell replied to Rice, and sent a copy of her reply to Crews, saying that is was not "okay" for her to file the claim because, Mitchell said, to do so would constitute fraud. During her testimony, Mitchell explained her position that, if a student had not had a physical examination, that student was not an "eligible player" and would not be covered under the policy. She said that her records indicated that the student had not yet had a physical examination and that, therefore, she had refused to submit the student's claim form.[1] Mitchell acknowledged that she had not seen a copy of the policy.

         In response to Mitchell's contention, Crews sent an email to Mitchell telling her that if Mitchell did not want to file the claim, she did not have to, but to send the student's claim form to Crews or to Rice and Crews would file the claim. Crews testified that, the next day, after receiving Crews's email, Mitchell told her that she "did not have anything to provide, and she could not assist us with that issue."

         On November 17, 2016, Crews said, she met with Mitchell and Rice. At that meeting, Crews said, she asked Mitchell where the student's claim form was. Mitchell responded that she did not have the form. According to Crews, Mitchell said that the form "was trash, so she threw it away." Crews testified that the claim form was a record that belonged to Lawson State. Mitchell testified that documents containing confidential information regarding students were destroyed regularly.

         Crews said that, when she asked Mitchell whether Rice had told her to file a claim for every student who submitted a claim form, Mitchell told her that Rice did not tell her what to do. Crews said that she then asked Mitchell whether the process was to "automatically" file a claim when a claim form is submitted and whether Rice had told her to follow that process on a regular basis. Crews testified that Mitchell said: "[N]o, Mr. Rice does not tell me anything to do because he doesn't know anything to tell me." Mitchell denied that she made that statement.

         Crews said that, during the November 17, 2016, meeting, Mitchell was "defensive" and "arrogant" and "just blatantly disrespectful toward her supervisor." Crews said that Lawson State could not condone behavior such as the behavior that Mitchell had displayed because, she said, "[i]t would just create total chaos." Lawson State's disciplinary guidelines, of which Mitchell was aware, provide that disciplinary measures are to be determined on a case-by-case basis. The guidelines allow an employee's employment to be terminated for a first offense, if warranted.

         Because of Mitchell's behavior, Crews said, she recommended that Mitchell's employment be terminated. On December 14, 2016, Crews provided Mitchell with written notice that she was recommending the termination of Mitchell's employment on the grounds of insubordination, failure to perform her duties in a satisfactory manner, and/or other good and just cause in connection with her refusal to file the student's claim.

         After the hearing, Ward issued a written decision setting forth his findings of fact and determining that "Ms. Mitchell had no objectively valid justification for refusing to process [the student's] insurance form or for not providing the same to Mr. Rice or Ms. Crews. Moreover, she had no objectively valid justification for destroying a record of [Lawson State]." Ward further determined that there was no credible evidence to suggest that the proposed termination of Mitchell's employment was based on political or personal reasons. Ward then concluded, based on the evidence presented, "as well as the demeanor and credibility of the witnesses, " including a determination that Crews's testimony regarding Mitchell's comments to Rice was "far more credible" than Mitchell's testimony, that Mitchell's conduct constituted "insubordination, failure to perform duties in a satisfactory manner, and/or other good and just cause." He then adopted the recommendation to terminate Mitchell's employment with Lawson State.

         Mitchell appealed the decision in accordance with the requirements of the SFA. Lawson State submitted the record of the termination hearing to the hearing officer designated to consider the appeal ("the hearing officer"). Mitchell attempted to submit additional documents to the hearing officer, who granted Lawson State's motion to strike those documents. The decision of the hearing officer on appeal was based solely on the record created before Ward. The hearing officer did allow arguments by the parties.

         After the arguments, the hearing officer issued a decision on appeal in which he accepted Ward's factual findings. However, the hearing officer wrote, "the sanction imposed on ... Mitchell for the misconduct shown was extremely harsh and severe and not rationally related to her actions." The hearing officer noted that Mitchell had served as the administrative assistant to the athletic director for nine years and that she had received excellent job reviews. The hearing officer stated:

"[Lawson State] has terminated an excellent long term employee based upon her refusal to submit a claim she believed was fraudulent, [Ward's] finding that she was insubordinate by talking back in a meeting about its submission, and [Ward's] finding that an easily replaceable insurance form was a 'record of the College' and had been destroyed. [Mitchell] did not refuse to file the claim out of any personal animus or willful neglect of her duties. To the contrary, she was concerned that [Lawson State] was submitting what she thought was an improper insurance claim, especially in view [of] her previous attempt to ensure the eligibility of that athlete. While it was not within her abilities or duties to make such a decision she was nonetheless acting, in her view, in her employer's best interests. The importance of this 'record of the College' is belied by the fact that no one ever simply called the student athlete and asked him to file a new one. [Rice] did not testify to any mental anguish from her criticism. No doubt he has suffered much worse abuse in the ...

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