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Wiggins v. City of Evergreen

Supreme Court of Alabama

September 20, 2019

Helen Wiggins
v.
City of Evergreen

          Appeal from Conecuh Circuit Court (CV-17-900024)

          MITCHELL, JUSTICE.

         This case concerns the dismissal of a municipal employee. The City of Evergreen ("the City") terminated the employment of Helen Wiggins, a warrant clerk and magistrate, after the Evergreen City Council ("the Council") accepted the recommendation of the City's mayor that she be dismissed for dereliction of duty. Wiggins thereafter filed a wrongful-termination action against the City in the Conecuh Circuit Court. The trial court ultimately entered a judgment in favor of the City and against Wiggins. She now appeals that judgment. We affirm.

         Facts and Procedural History

         On February 15, 2017, Cynthia Salter, the manager of a Chevron gasoline service station in Evergreen, was reviewing surveillance videos when she discovered that one of her employees and that employee's husband had stolen money from the business. Salter promptly terminated the employment of the employee shown in the video and notified the police of the theft. Police officers were dispatched to the business, and, after they prepared a written report, they instructed Salter to obtain arrest warrants at the City's municipal building ("city hall"). The police officers told Salter that, once she obtained those warrants, they would arrest the former employee and her husband.

         At approximately 9:15 a.m. the following day, Salter went to city hall to obtain the warrants the police had told her she needed. Wiggins, one of two warrant clerks and magistrates employed by the City, was on duty at the time.[1]After Salter explained why she was there, Wiggins told her that she would have to return at approximately 11:30 a.m. when Barbara Ashley-Kemp, the other warrant clerk and magistrate, would be on duty. At a subsequent hearing conducted by the Council, Salter testified that Wiggins gave her no explanation for not issuing the warrants.

         When Ashley-Kemp reported for work at approximately 12:00 p.m., Salter was waiting for her. Ashley-Kemp promptly issued the warrants Salter needed because, Ashley-Kemp later testified, "I thought she had probable cause." Ashley-Kemp described her encounter with Salter as "a completely routine issuance of a warrant." Ashley-Kemp further testified that when one warrant clerk was not present in the office the other warrant clerk was responsible for issuing warrants.

         Salter stated that, after she obtained the warrants, she left the magistrate's office and was confronted by the two individuals who were the subjects of the warrants. Salter stated that they offered her money not to seek warrants for their arrests, but she told them that the warrants had already been issued and they did not escalate the matter. When questioned by Wiggins's attorney at the hearing before the Council, Salter explained why she objected to Wiggins's failure to issue the warrants when they were first sought:

"Q. So why was this upsetting to you that you didn't get the warrant [on your first trip] --I mean you got the warrant.
"A. Right.
"Q. You just had to come back when [Wiggins] had her assistant there, why is this upsetting to you?
"A. What do you mean why is it upsetting? Well, for the simple fact that at 11:30 when I was doing it with [Ashley-Kemp], the person that I accused of stealing, the husband, he was trying to get back there to the office. Therefore I was afraid, I didn't know what I was going to be confronted with.
"Q. You understand Helen Wiggins has no control over those folks?
"A. Correct.
"Q. And when you did receive the warrant at 11:30 --
"A. Right.
"Q. -- you don't have any complaint that it was issued by her assistant warrant clerk as opposed to ...

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