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LEAD Education Foundation v. Alabama Education Association

Supreme Court of Alabama

March 8, 2019

LEAD Education Foundation et al.
Alabama Education Association et al. Mac Buttram et al.
Alabama Education Association et al. Ed Richardson, Interim State Superintendent of Education
Alabama Education Association et al.

          Appeals from Montgomery Circuit Court (CV-18-107)

          BOLIN, JUSTICE.

         Alabama Public Charter School Commission members Mac Buttram, Charles Jackson, Lisa Williams, Melinda McLendon, Terri Tomlinson, Tommy Ledbetter, Melissa Kay McInnis, Chad Fincher, Henry Nelson, and Ibrahim Lee (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the Commission members"); LEAD Education Foundation ("LEAD"); and Ed Richardson, former interim State Superintendent of Education[1] (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the defendants"), separately appeal from a summary judgment entered in favor of the Alabama Education Association ("the AEA"), Vicky Holloway, and Felicia Fleming (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the plaintiffs"). The defendants also challenge on appeal the circuit court's denial of their motions to dismiss and/or for a summary judgment.

         I. Facts

         In December 2017, LEAD submitted an application to the Alabama Public Charter School Commission ("the Commission"), established pursuant to the Alabama School Choice and Student Opportunity Act, § 16-6F-1 et seq., Ala. Code 1975 ("the ASCSOA"), seeking to open a public charter school beginning in the 2018-2019 school year.[2] During a two-month evaluation period, the Commission investigated LEAD's capability to open and to operate as a public charter school. The Commission contracted with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers ("NACSA"), which provided a three-member panel to evaluate and to make recommendations on LEAD's application. In a report issued on January 19, 2018, NACSA's panel noted some areas that needed improvement and requested additional information. The NACSA report, however, also provided that "[t]he authority and responsibility to decide whether to approve or deny each application rests with the members of the Commission." In the weeks following the panel's report, LEAD provided the requested information and made other improvements as suggested by NACSA.

         On February 12, 2018, the Commission conducted an open meeting, with seven out of nine members present.[3] At the meeting, LEAD presented testimony and documentary evidence and answered the Commission's questions regarding matters related to the NACSA report and other concerns. Neither Holloway, Fleming, nor an AEA representative was present at the meeting, and no private citizens voiced any opposition to LEAD's application. At the conclusion of the meeting, the Commission voted 5-1 to approve LEAD's application.[4] On March 15, 2018, the Commission adopted a resolution approving LEAD's application.

         II. Procedural History

         On March 5, 2018, the plaintiffs filed a complaint seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the Commission members; (2) Ed Richardson, then the interim State Superintendent of Education; and (3) LEAD, a nonprofit organization formed to establish a public charter school in Montgomery County. The AEA consists of school teachers, principals, administrative personnel, and other employees. Holloway and Fleming are citizens and taxpayers of both Montgomery County and the State of Alabama and are employees of the Montgomery County Board of Education.

         The five-count complaint sought, among other things, to invalidate the Commission's 5-1 decision at its February 12, 2018, meeting to approve LEAD's application to open a public charter school for the 2018-2019 school year. The plaintiffs set forth the following claims:

Count I: The Commission violated the majority-vote requirement of the ASCSOA. Specifically, the plaintiffs asserted that a majority vote of the body of the Commission comprised of a total of 11 members was necessary for the passage of an action authorizing the charter school as required by § 16-6F-6(c)(3) and (9), Ala. Code 1975.
Count II: The Commission violated the Open Meetings Act, § 36-25A-1 et seq., Ala. Code 1975, by failing to adhere to the Commission's adopted parliamentary procedures, which the plaintiffs alleged required a vote by a "majority of the entire commission" pursuant to §§ 36-25A-5(a) and -9, Ala. Code 1975.
Count III: The Commission violated the ASCSOA by failing to seat a local school-board member on the Commission as required by § 16-6F-6(c)(4), Ala. Code 1975.
Count IV: The Commission violated the ASCSOA by failing to fulfill its ministerial duty to reject the application by "declining to approve weak or inadequate charter applications" as set forth in § 16-6F-6(p)(3), Ala. Code 1975. Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that, if the Commission's 5-1 vote was found to have legal effect, it was nonetheless "arbitrary and capricious" for the Commission to approve LEAD's application, which was contrary to the recommendation of NACSA.
Count V: The plaintiffs argued that Richardson and anyone in his employ or acting in concert with him should be prevented from disbursing any funds or property to LEAD Academy because, they said, it is not a lawfully authorized charter school.

         In their complaint, the plaintiffs also sought the following relief:

"(a) ... a declaratory judgment and injunction declaring that the application of the LEAD Education Foundation was not approved by the purported 5-1 vote at the February [12], 2018, meeting of the Commission;
"(b) ... a declaratory judgment and injunction forbidding the Commission, and all those acting in conjunction with [it], from approving future applications with less than six affirmative votes, a majority of the entire [C]ommission;
"(c) ... a judgment declaring that approval of the LEAD Education Foundation application was a per se violation of the ASCSOA due to its being weak and inadequate both as found by the Commission's own reviewer, a national expert, and as a matter of law and prohibiting the Commission from attempting to adopt the same application without substantial modifications in the future;
"(d) ... a judgment declaring that the Commission was not duly constituted when evaluating the LEAD Education Foundation application, making all actions on the application after its receipt void ab initio;
"(e) ... writs of mandamus and prohibition, as well as an injunction to Defendant Richardson from disbursing any public funds or transferring any public property to LEAD Academy;
"(f) ... injunctions, as well as writs of mandamus and prohibition, to prevent LEAD Education Foundation and all other defendants from taking any further action as though LEAD Academy were a duly-authorized charter school, including, but not limited to, advertising as an authorized charter school, enrolling students, or seeking to enforce any right to preferred purchase of real property held by a public school system; and
"(g) ... provide such other relief as the [circuit court] deems appropriate." The plaintiffs attached evidentiary materials, including online articles from a local newspaper and television station and NACSA's "Charter School Application Recommendation Report 2018."

         Following a March 7, 2018, hearing on a motion for a temporary restraining order, Judge J.R. Gaines entered an order setting motion deadlines and a hearing for April 30. The order also limited LEAD from participating in certain activities related to formation of LEAD Academy pending the court's ruling following the April 30 hearing. Specifically, the circuit court ordered:

"LEAD Education Foundation may advertise, recruit and solicit applications for filling any and all staff positions for LEAD Academy; provided, however, that no contracts of employment for LEAD Academy may be entered into, and no public funds obligated or expended for these activities ....
"... LEAD Education Foundation may advertise, solicit applications, and register students for LEAD Academy; provided, however, that no students may be enrolled in LEAD Academy, and no public funds obligated or expended for these activities ....
"... LEAD Education Foundation is in no way prohibited from purchasing, negotiating, or otherwise contracting with any private party or private entity for LEAD Academy's facilities; provided, however, that no public building may be purchased, or public funds obligated or expended for these activities ...."

         LEAD filed a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for a summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiffs' ASCSOA and Open Meetings Act claims did not rest on a legal basis, that the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate the necessary elements for the declaratory and injunctive relief they sought, and that their pleadings and evidentiary materials were insufficient to support their claims. Richardson filed a motion to dismiss, primarily addressing issues of immunity and standing. The Commission members filed a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for a summary judgment, contending that each of the plaintiffs' claims failed as a matter of law and that there was no genuine issue of material fact. In addition, the Commission members filed a separate motion to dismiss on the basis of immunity. The plaintiffs filed responses, in which they addressed immunity and the merits of the defendants' argument that the ASCSOA requires no more than a majority of a quorum for voting purposes.

         The plaintiffs also filed a motion for a summary judgment, contending that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to counts I, II, III, and V.[5] The defendants filed responses to the plaintiffs' motion for a summary judgment, as well as evidentiary materials.[6]

         On April 12, 2018, the plaintiffs filed a motion to stay discovery, requesting that the court stay depositions until it ruled on the motions for a summary judgment, which the defendants opposed. On April 24, 2018, the circuit court conducted a hearing on the motion to stay. On April 30, 2018, the court conducted oral argument on all other pending motions. On May 1, 2018, the circuit court granted the plaintiffs' motion for a summary judgment as to count I of the complaint. Specifically, the circuit court specifically found that the individual plaintiffs had taxpayer standing to challenge the proposed expenditure because, "if Plaintiffs are right on the merits of the Commission's action regarding LEAD's application, then it would be unlawful for LEAD to receive public funds." In addition, the court found that the number of votes was insufficient to approve the application, specifically interpreting § 16-6F-6(c)(3), Ala. Code 1975, as requiring a majority vote of the entire Commission. The circuit court concluded that, because it was entering a summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs with respect to count I, the remaining counts were dismissed as moot. The circuit court also denied all the defendants' dispositive motions.

         On May 2, 2018, the defendants filed their separate notices of appeal. This Court consolidated the appeals for the purpose of writing one opinion.[7]

         III. Discussion

         A. Mootness Issue

         The plaintiffs assert that the issues before this Court have become moot because LEAD did not execute the charter contract for the 2018-2019 school year within 60 days after the Commission entered its decision.[8] The defendants' explanation for the delay, however, is the plaintiffs' filing of this action against LEAD. The defendants acknowledge that the original contract-execution deadline, which they calculate as May 14, 2018, has passed; they argue, however, that an order entered by the circuit court on May 8, 2018, tolled the contract-execution deadline pending the outcome of the appeals and that therefore, the issues before the Court are ripe for review.

"'This Court has often said that, as a general rule, it will not decide questions after a decision has become useless or moot.' Arrington v. State ex rel. Parsons, 422 So.2d 759, 760 (Ala. 1982).
"'"'A moot case or question is a case or question in or on which there is no real controversy; a case which seeks to determine an abstract question which does not rest on existing facts or rights, or involve conflicting rights so far as plaintiff is concerned.'" Case v. Alabama State Bar, 939 So.2d 881, 884 (Ala. 2006) (quoting American Fed'n of State, County & Mun. Employees v. Dawkins, 268 Ala. 13, 18, 104 So.2d 827, 830-31 (1958)). "The test for mootness is commonly stated as whether the court's action on the merits would affect the rights of the parties." Crawford v. State, 153 S.W.3d 497, 501 (Tex. App. 2004) (citing VE Corp. v. Ernst & Young, 860 S.W.2d 83, 84 (Tex. 1993)). "A case becomes moot if at any stage there ceases to be an ...

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