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Ex parte Decatur City Board of Education

Supreme Court of Alabama

June 22, 2018

Ex parte Decatur City Board of Education
v.
Decatur City Board of Education In re: Carrie Cabri Witt

          Morgan Circuit Court, CV-17-10

          PETITION FOR WRIT OF MANDAMUS

          WISE, Justice.

         The Decatur City Board of Education ("the Board"), the defendant below, [1] filed a petition for a writ of mandamus requesting that this Court order the Morgan Circuit Court to dissolve the preliminary injunction it entered on February 28, 2017, and to dismiss the petition upon which it was based. We grant the petition and issue the writ.

         Facts and Procedural History

         On or about March 22, 2016, Carrie Cabri Witt, a school employee, was arrested and charged with engaging in sex acts with students who were under the age of 19 years. At that time, she was also placed on paid administrative leave. On September 2, 2016, a Morgan County grand jury returned a two-count indictment that charged her with engaging in a sex act or deviate sexual intercourse with 2 students who were under the age of 19 years, in violation of § 13A-6-81, Ala. Code 1975.

         On November 4, 2016, the superintendent of education for Morgan County recommended to the Board that Witt's teaching contract be terminated based on the allegations that she had engaged in inappropriate sexual activity with one or more students in the Decatur City School System. According to the Board, that conduct violated Board policy and corresponding professional standards. On January 31, 2017, the Board notified Witt that it had scheduled a termination hearing for March 2, 2017.

         On February 22, 2017, Witt filed a petition in the Morgan Circuit Court, seeking a preliminary injunction staying the termination proceeding until after the disposition of the underlying criminal case. She argued that, because the basis for the termination proceeding was the underlying criminal charges, she would be forced to choose between the risk of self-incrimination if she testified in the termination proceeding or of losing her teaching contract if she did not testify in the termination proceeding.

         On February 24, 2017, the Board filed a motion to dismiss or to deny the petition for a preliminary injunction. It quoted § 16-24C-6(j), Ala. Code 1975, which provides:

"Employees shall not be permitted to delay, defer, or defeat the initiation or pursuit of any termination or other employment action initiated under authority of this chapter based upon the pendency or threatened initiation of criminal proceedings arising out of the facts, circumstances, or subject matter of the employment action. The appearance or testimony of an employee in a proceeding authorized under this chapter shall not cause the employee to waive, forfeit, or relinquish any right against self-incrimination, and no such testimony shall be admitted in any court of this state in a criminal proceeding in which the right applies upon the timely objection of the employee thereto."

(Emphasis added.) The Board then argued that Witt would be "free to testify in the administrative hearing if she desires to do so without fear of waiving any objection to the use of such testimony in the criminal trial or forfeiting her right not to take the witness stand." Therefore, it concluded that she was not being forced to choose between the risk of self-incrimination if she testified or of losing her teaching contract if she did not testify.

         On February 28, 2017, the trial court granted the petition for a preliminary injunction. It reasoned, in part, that § 16-24C-6(j) "does not adequately protect [Witt's] constitutional rights" against self-incrimination because § 13A-6-83, Ala. Code 1975, [2] "has not been repealed [or] amended to account for the enactment of § 16-24C-6[, ] placing the statutes clearly in conflict one with the other." The court also noted that Witt had challenged the constitutionality of § 13A-6-81; that a hearing on the motion was set for April 3, 2017; and that a jury trial was set for August 21, 2017. It further found that the Board would "suffer no further harm by being enjoined from terminating employment until such time as the criminal matter is resolved later this year."

         On March 22, 2017, the Board filed a motion to dissolve the preliminary injunction. It argued that, "because they are in conflict, the SFA's [Students First Act, Act No. 2011-270, Ala. Acts 2011] repealer clause operates to nullify § 13A-6-83."[3] It also argued that, "even without the SFA's repealer clause, § 13A-6-83 would be deemed superseded and controlled by § 16-24C-6(j)." The Board further argued:

"[Section] 16-24C-6(j) is the governing expression of legislative intent on the specific question of the interplay between criminal charges and employment rights in the public school context because it is found in the comprehensive statute that was adopted precisely for the purpose of establishing and delineating such rights. By contrast, § 13A-6-83 was included in the Act that criminalized sexual misconduct between school employees and students not as an amendment of or addendum to the tenure law or even as a fully formed statement of employment rights and procedures, but as a lifeline to employers who would otherwise have had no means of confidently suspending alleged criminal offenders under the tenure law as it was then written."

         On April 12, 2017, the Board requested a hearing on its motion to dissolve the preliminary injunction. The trial court did not rule on that motion.

         On August 10, 2017, the trial court granted Witt's motion in the pending criminal case to hold § 13A-6-81(a) unconstitutional as applied to her and dismissed the criminal case without prejudice. The State of Alabama appealed that ruling to the Court of Criminal Appeals, and that appeal remains pending.

         On August 31, 2017, the Board filed another motion to dissolve the February 28, 2017, injunction that was entered in the termination proceeding. On September 11, 2017, Witt filed a response in opposition to the Board's motion to dissolve. The trial court did not rule on the motion. This petition followed.

         Standard of Review

"'"A writ of mandamus is an extraordinary remedy that is available when a trial court has exceeded its discretion. Ex parte Fidelity Bank, 893 So.2d 1116, 1119 (Ala. 2004). A writ of mandamus is 'appropriate when the petitioner can show (1) a clear legal right to the order sought; (2) an imperative duty upon the respondent to perform, accompanied by a refusal to do so; (3) the lack of another adequate remedy; and (4) the properly ...

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