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Alabama Department of Labor v. Griggs

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

July 26, 2019

Alabama Department of Labor
v.
Eddie L. Griggs

          Appeal from Houston Circuit Court (CV-18-134)

          THOMPSON, PRESIDING JUDGE.

         The Alabama Department of Labor ("the DOL") appeals from a judgment of the Houston Circuit Court ("the trial court") in this unemployment-compensation case. The judgment permitted Eddie L. Griggs to receive the maximum amount of unemployment- compensation benefits allowed, with no disqualifications. Initially, the DOL decided that Griggs was disqualified from receiving any unemployment-compensation benefits. Griggs appealed that decision to a DOL hearing officer. After conducting a hearing by telephone with Griggs and other witnesses, the hearing officer entered a decision disqualifying Griggs from receiving unemployment-compensation benefits for eight weeks and declaring that the maximum amount to which he could "become entitled after that period of disqualification was reduced by eight times the weekly benefit amount." The DOL then appealed the hearing officer's decision to the trial court for a trial de novo. See § 25-4-95, Ala. Code 1975 (providing for appeal to the circuit court in unemployment-compensation cases and stating that "[t]rial in the circuit court shall be de novo").

         The evidence presented to the trial court indicated the following. For 15 months, Griggs, who is not disabled, worked for Dothan Ambulance Service, Inc., also known as Pilcher's Ambulance Service ("Pilcher's"), driving a wheelchair van. His job was to transport patients who are confined to wheelchairs to and from various appointments. The van was equipped with a handicapped-parking placard. Elaine Hughes Culp, the general manager of Pilcher's, testified before the trial court that, when clients were in the wheelchair van, drivers were permitted to park in spaces designated for handicapped parking. However, she said, if there were no clients with disabilities on board, drivers were not permitted to use those spaces. Culp also said that all of Pilcher's drivers were made aware that they had to follow all state rules and regulations and that, under state law, a driver who is not transporting a disabled person cannot park in a space reserved for people with disabilities. Section 32-6-233.1, Ala. Code 1975, provides that it is unlawful for a person who does not have a disability or who is not transporting a person with a disability to park in a parking space designated as a handicapped space.

         Griggs testified that, on August 1, 2018, he was driving the wheelchair van while on duty but that he was not transporting anyone at the time. He stated that he pulled into a convenience-store parking lot and that the only parking space available was designated for handicapped parking. Griggs said that it was raining heavily and that two handicapped spaces were empty, so he parked in one of them and went inside the convenience store to use the restroom and to buy a soft drink. Griggs said that he was inside the store for only a few minutes. He stated that he left the store and that, as he approached the van, he was approached by an "older lady." Griggs said that she asked him why he had parked in the handicapped space, because he was not handicapped. Griggs testified that he responded, "Ma'am, I apologize for [the] inconvenience. I just stopped there just to use the bathroom just for a minute. And I'm very sorry if I caused you any difficulty." According to Griggs, the woman told him again that he was not supposed to park in a handicapped space. He said that he apologized again and "politely asked" her where she had parked. Griggs said that the woman, who apparently was disabled, told him she had parked in the handicapped space next to the van. The woman also video-recorded Griggs and took his photograph, Griggs said. He denied that he was rude to the woman.

         Culp testified that, the day of Griggs's encounter with the woman, the woman came to the station from which Pilcher's operated to make a complaint against him. According to Culp, the woman said that she had contemplated posting the video to the Facebook social-media web site, which, Culp said, would have been "horrible" and would have put Pilcher's in a bad light with the public.

         Culp said that she spoke with the woman and watched the video the woman had recorded. From watching the video, Culp said, it was apparent that the woman had difficulty walking. The woman also had recorded Griggs inside the store "fixing him a coke." Culp said that the video shows the woman speaking with Griggs when she followed him out of the store and approached the van. Culp said: "She is speaking with him. And he is not responding very well to her." When the woman asked Griggs his name, Culp said, Griggs did not tell her. Culp added: "[W]hile she's asking him all these questions, he has the van in reverse, and the beeping noise is going on constantly. And he eventually just drives off, right after she tells him that she has recorded the whole thing." Culp said that she did not hear Griggs apologize to the woman on the recording.

         Before the incident at the convenience store, Culp said, a previous supervisor had reprimanded Griggs after he received a speeding ticket while driving the van. Culp also said that, following another incident, she had warned Griggs against "rude, loud behavior" at the workplace. That warning was documented in writing. On that occasion, Culp said, Griggs was on the telephone with another employee in the office and could be heard yelling at that other employee. Culp said that she warned Griggs that, if his behavior did not change, he could lose his job. Griggs acknowledged that, before the incident at the convenience store, he had received warnings from his supervisors for misconduct, including being "smart mouthed and rude and loud." Griggs conceded that he had been told that if his attitude did not "straighten up," he would lose his job and that he was "on thin ice." However, Griggs also testified that Pilcher's had not told him "actually what they [were] terminating [him] for." He denied having received previous warnings, adding: "I never had no write-ups."

         Griggs testified that, when he was driving the van, "[r]egardless if [clients were] in the vehicle or not, I usually park in [handicapped spaces] with them or not." Just a few questions later, however, Griggs said that he parked in a handicapped space "just that once." He said that, when he was driving his personal vehicle, he did not park in handicapped-parking spaces and that he knew doing so was illegal.

         On February 11, 2019, the trial court entered a judgment stating that the DOL's initial notice of determination advising Griggs that he was disqualified from receiving any unemployment compensation was based on § 25-4-78(3)b., Ala. Code 1975. That statute is applicable when an employee loses his or her job because of misconduct after a previous warning. The trial court then noted that the hearing officer had modified that initial decision and had "removed the disqualification under the provisions of § 25-4-78(3)b.," but had found Griggs was "partially disqualified under the provisions of § 25-4-78(3)c.," Ala. Code 1975. That provision is applicable when an employee loses his or her job because of misconduct but has not received a prior warning. After considering the evidence presented at the trial, the trial court reversed the partial denial of benefits based on § 25-4-78(3)c. In the judgment, the trial court removed the partial disqualification and stated that "the reduction of the maximum amount of benefits parable [sic] is restored." In entering the judgment, the trial court noted that Griggs was the only party to file a notice of appeal seeking judicial review of the hearing officer's decision.

         The DOL filed a timely notice of appeal to this court. Griggs did not favor this court with a brief on appeal. On appeal, the DOL argues that the trial court misapplied the applicable law to the facts that, it says, are undisputed regarding Griggs's misconduct and his previous warnings. Therefore, the DOL contends, the evidence demonstrates that a complete disqualification from receiving unemployment-compensation benefits is warranted in this case.

         Based on language used in the trial court's judgment noting that Griggs was the only party who had sought judicial review of the hearing officer's decision that Griggs was partially disqualified from receiving unemployment-compensation benefits, it appears that the trial court was acting under the belief that it could review the propriety of the hearing officer's decision only to the extent that it was adverse to Griggs. If so, that belief was incorrect.

"'"'[A] trial de novo means that the slate is wiped clean and a trial in the Circuit Court is had without any consideration being given to prior proceedings in another court.'"' Mahoney v. Loma Alta Prop. Owners Ass'n, Inc., 84 So.3d 907, 916 (Ala. Civ. App. 2011) (quoting Ex parte Dison, 469 So.2d 662, 665 (Ala. 1984) (overruled on other grounds by Ex parte City of Dothan, 501 So.2d 1136 (Ala. 1986)), quoting in turn Yarbrough v. City of Birmingham, 353 So.2d 75, 78 (Ala.Crim.App.1977))."

N.J.D. v. Madison Cty. Dep't of Human Res., 110 So.3d 387, 390 (Ala. Civ. App. 2012). Thus, the trial court was to determine the amount of unemployment-compensation benefits Griggs was entitled to receive, if any, ...


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