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Ex parte Wilcox County Board of Education

Supreme Court of Alabama

December 21, 2018

Ex parte Wilcox County Board of Education, Tyrone Yarbrough, individually and in his official capacity as superintendent of the Wilcox County Board of Education, and Bernard Martin and Lester Turk, individually and in their official capacities as members of the Wilcox County Board of Education
v.
Wilcox County Board of Education, Tyrone Yarbrough, individually and in his official capacity as superintendent of the Wilcox County Board of Education, and Bernard Martin and Lester Turk, individually and in their official capacities as members of the Wilcox County Board of Education In re: Reginald Southall

          Wilcox Circuit Court, CV-14-12

          PETITION FOR WRIT OF MANDAMUS

          BOLIN, JUSTICE.

         The Wilcox County Board of Education ("the Board"); Tyrone Yarbrough, individually and in his official capacity as the superintendent of the Board;[1] and members of the Board Bernard Martin and Lester Turk, individually and in their official capacities, petition for a writ of mandamus directed to the Wilcox Circuit Court. The petitioners seek an order compelling the circuit court to vacate its order denying their motion to dismiss and to enter an order dismissing with prejudice all claims against them. We grant the petition and issue the writ.

         Facts and Procedural History

         Reginald Southall was a teacher at Wilcox Central High School. During a meeting of the Board in April 2013, then Superintendent Yarbrough recommended the nonrenewal of Southall's probationary contract. Five Board members were present during the vote. Upon a motion to accept Yarbrough's recommendation, three Board members voted in favor of not renewing the contract, one member opposed the recommendation, and one member abstained. Board members Joseph Pettway, Jr., Martin, and Turk voted in favor of Yarbrough's recommendation for the nonrenewal of the probationary contract. Clifford Twilley voted against the recommendation, and Donald McLeod abstained.

         Normally, the Board consists of six members. One seat on the Board, however, was vacant at the time of the April 2013 meeting, due to an order of the circuit court enjoining the Board from filling the vacant seat.[2] Thus, the Board conducted business with only five members during the April 2013 meeting.

          On December 3, 2014, Southall filed a petition in the circuit court seeking a declaratory judgment, injunctive relief, and a writ of mandamus, in which he asserted that, because of the vacancy on the Board, the termination of his employment was the result of an illegal vote of the Board in violation of § 16-8-4, Ala. Code 1975. On January 12, 2015, the Board, Yarbrough, Martin, and Turk (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the petitioners"), filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), Ala. R. Civ. P., asserting that Southall failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted because, they argued, the Board's vote to accept the recommendation not to renew Southall's probationary contract complied with the law. The petitioners also moved to dismiss on the basis of Rule 12(b)(1), Ala. R. Civ. P., asserting that the circuit court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because, they asserted, they are immune from liability. Three years passed before the circuit court considered the motion. After conducting a status conference on February 22, 2018, the circuit court denied the motion to dismiss without explanation, either of the delay in ruling or of the reasoning for the ruling. On April 5, 2018, the petitioners filed this petition for a writ of mandamus.

         Standard of Review

"'"The writ of mandamus is a drastic and extraordinary writ, to be 'issued only when there is: 1) a clear legal right in the petitioner 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) properly invoked jurisdiction of the court.' Ex parte United Serv. Stations, Inc., 628 So.2d 501, 503 (Ala. 1993); see also Ex parte Ziglar, 669 So.2d 133, 134 (Ala. 1995)." Ex parte Carter, [807 So.2d 534, ] 536 [(Ala. 2001)].'

"Ex parte McWilliams, 812 So.2d 318, 321 (Ala. 2001).

"'Subject to certain narrow exceptions ..., we have held that, because an "adequate remedy" exists by way of an appeal, the denial of a motion to dismiss or a motion for a summary judgment is not reviewable by petition for writ of mandamus.' Ex parte Liberty Nat'l Life Ins. Co., 825 So.2d 758, 761-62 (Ala. 2002)."

Ex parte Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., L.P., 78 So.3d 959, 965-66 (Ala. 2011). Among those exceptions is when the petitioner challenges the subject-matter jurisdiction of the trial court, Ex parte Health South Corp., 974 So.2d 288, 292 (Ala. 2007), or when the petitioner asserts immunity. Ex parte Alabama Peace Officers' Standards & Training Comm'n, 34 So.3d 1248 (Ala. 2009).

         Discussion

         A. Sovereign Immunity and Official-Capacity Claims

         The Board contends that the circuit court should have granted the motion to dismiss as to Southall's claims against it seeking monetary damages, on the ground of sovereign immunity. Yarbrough, Martin, and Turk contend that dismissal is also warranted on those claims seeking monetary damages against them in their official capacities, on the ground of sovereign immunity. We agree.

         It is well settled law that the State is generally immune from liability under § 14, Alabama Constitution of 1901. It is also well settled that the State cannot be sued indirectly by suing an officer in his or her official capacity.

"Sovereign immunity is a jurisdictional bar that deprives a court of subject-matter jurisdiction. Ex parte Dep't of Mental Health & Mental Retardation, 837 So.2d 808, 810-11 (Ala. 2002). The principle of sovereign immunity, set forth in Article I, § 14, Alabama Constitution of 1901, is a wall that is 'nearly impregnable.' Patterson v. Gladwin Corp., 835 So.2d 137, 142 (Ala. 2002). The implications of sovereign immunity are '"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."' Patterson, 835 So.2d at 142 (quoting State Docks Comm'n v. Barnes, 225 Ala. 403, 405, 143 So. 581, 582 (1932))."

Ex parte Alabama Dep't of Mental Health & Mental Retardation, 937 So.2d 1018, 1022-23 (Ala. 2006).

         County boards of education, along with the members of the those boards and superintendents sued in their official or representative capacity, enjoy the protection of immunity provided by § 14 when the action against them is effectively an action against the State. See Ex parte Montgomery Cty. Bd. of Educ., 88 So.3d 837 (Ala. 2012)(holding that the Montgomery County Board of Education and members of the board in their official capacity were immune from suit under § 14 on a tort claim brought on behalf of an elementary-school student injured in the school's restroom); Ex parte Monroe Cty. Bd. of Educ., 48 So.3d 621 (Ala. 2010)(holding that, for the purpose of sovereign immunity, county boards of education are considered agencies of the State); and Board of Sch. Comm'rs of Mobile Cty. v. Weaver, 99 So.3d 1210 (Ala. 2012)(holding that superintendent was entitled to sovereign immunity in his official capacity as a State officer). Therefore, the Board is absolutely immune from suit, as it is considered an agency of the State. In addition, to the extent Southall seeks monetary damages against the individual petitioners in their official capacities, they are also immune from suit.

         Section 14 immunity, however, is not always absolute; there are actions against State officials that are not barred by the general rule of sovereign immunity.

"[C]ertain actions are not barred by § 14. There are six general categories of actions that do not come within the prohibition of § 14: (1) actions brought to compel State officials to perform their legal duties; (2) actions brought to enjoin State officials from enforcing an unconstitutional law; (3) actions to compel State officials to perform ministerial acts; (4) actions brought against State officials under the Declaratory Judgments Act, Ala. Code 1975, § 6-6-220 et seq., seeking construction of a statute and its application in a given situation; (5) valid inverse condemnation actions brought against State officials in their representative capacity; and (6) actions for injunction or damages brought against State officials in their representative capacity and individually where it was alleged that they had acted fraudulently, in bad faith, beyond their authority, or in a mistaken interpretation of law. See Drummond Co. v. Alabama Dep't of Transp., 937 So.2d 56, 58 (Ala. 2006)(quoting Ex parte Carter, 395 So.2d 65, 68 (Ala. 1980)); Alabama Dep't of Transp. v. Harbert Int'l, Inc., 990 So.2d 831 (Ala. 2008) (holding that the exception for declaratory-judgment actions applies only to actions against State officials). As we confirmed in Harbert, these 'exceptions' to sovereign immunity apply only to actions brought against State officials; they do not apply to actions against the State or against State agencies. See Alabama Dep't of Transp., 990 So.2d at 840-41."

Ex parte Alabama Dep't of Fin., 991 So.2d 1254, 1256-57 (Ala. 2008). In Ex parte Moulton, 116 So.3d 1119 (Ala. 2013), this Court clarified and restated the sixth exception to § 14 immunity set forth in Drummond Co. v. Alabama Department of Transportation, 937 So.2d 56, 58 (Ala. 2006), by holding that the exception applies only to the following:

"(6)(a) actions for injunction brought against State officials in their representative capacity where it is alleged that they had acted fraudulently, in bad faith, beyond their authority, or in a mistaken interpretation of law, Wallace v. Board of Education of Montgomery County, 280 Ala. 635, 197 So.2d 428 (1967), and (b) actions for damages brought against State officials in their individual capacity where it is alleged that they had acted fraudulently, in bad faith, beyond their authority, or in a mistaken interpretation of law, subject to the limitation that the action not be, in effect, one against the State. Phillips v. Thomas, 555 So.2d 81, 83 (Ala. 1989)."

116 So.3d at 1141.

         Southall argues that, to the extent he seeks a judgment declaring that the termination of his employment was ineffective and prospective injunctive relief requiring reinstatement to his previous employment, the claims against the individual petitioners in their official capacities fall within the first, third, fourth, and sixth exceptions.

         First, Southall argues that Yarbrough and the individual Board members had a legal duty to recognize that he remains employed because, under § 16-8-4, there was no affirmative vote of a majority of the entire six-member Board. He also argues that the third exception is applicable because, he says, he is seeking to have them perform the ministerial act of continuing to treat him as employed and to return him to active status because, he says, there was no valid affirmative vote to terminate his employment. He further argues that the fourth exception to § 14 immunity exists because he brought this suit under the Declaratory Judgments Act, § 6-6-220 et seq., Ala. Code 1975, seeking the construction and application of § 16-8-4. Finally, he asserts that the sixth exception is applicable because, he says, the individual petitioners were operating under a mistaken interpretation of the law.

         Before addressing the exceptions to § 14 immunity, this Court must differentiate between Southall's requests for monetary relief and for injunctive relief. In Harris v. Owens, 105 So.3d 430 (Ala. 2012), a former state-university employee brought an action against the university president and the individual members of the university's board in their official capacities, alleging that her employment had been wrongfully terminated. The trial court found that the university had not complied with the due-process procedures set forth in its employee handbook and that the former employee was entitled to backpay and benefits. This Court held:

"In this case, § 14 immunizes the [university president and individual board members] from any claim for monetary damages. Therefore, the circuit court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction over [the former employee's] claim for backpay and benefits. See Ex parte Alabama Dep't of Transp., 978 So.2d 17 (Ala. 2007). '"'"Lacking subject matter jurisdiction [a court] may take no action other than to exercise its power to dismiss the [claim].... Any other action taken by a court lacking subject matter jurisdiction is null and void."'" Ex parte Blankenship, 893 So.2d [303, ] 307 [(Ala. 2004)](quoting State v. Property at 2018 Rainbow Drive, 740 So.2d 1025, 1029 (Ala. 1999), quoting in turn Beach v. Director of Revenue, 934 S.W.2d 315, 318 (Mo.Ct.App. 1996)).' Ex parte Alabama Dep't of Transp., 978 So.2d at 27. Thus, the circuit court's order was void to the extent it purported to award backpay and benefits to [the former employee]."

105 So.3d at 435.

         In his petition in the circuit court, Southall sought a judgment declaring:

(1) that the Board and its members' actions of acting on a recommendation of Yarbrough without the proper majority vote violated § 16-8-4;
(2) that the nonrenewal of Southall's employment is invalid and that the act taken against him was beyond their authority;
(3) that Southall is due all pay and benefits he was receiving until a proper vote on the renewal of his ...

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