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Ex parte Blunt

Supreme Court of Alabama

December 6, 2019

Ex parte Sonia Blunt
v.
Patsy Lowry et al. In re: Matthew Langston, a minor child, and Joshua Langston, a minor child, by and through their father and next friend, Keith Langston

          Tuscaloosa Circuit Court, CV-12-901151

          PETITION FOR WRIT OF MANDAMUS

          PER CURIAM

         Sonia Blunt, a teacher in the Tuscaloosa City Schools system ("TCS"), [1] petitions this Court for a writ of mandamus directing the Tuscaloosa Circuit Court to enter a summary judgment in her favor on the basis of State-agent immunity as to claims asserted against her by Keith Langston, as next friend and father of Joshua Langston and Matthew Langston, minors at the time the action was filed.[2] We grant the petition.

         I. Facts

         On June 28, 2010, Marcus Crawford was a student in Blunt's "credit-recovery" class offered by TCS at Northridge High School ("Northridge") during the summer of 2010. According to TCS's 2009-2010 "Student/Parent Resource Guide and Code of Student Conduct" ("resource guide"), the credit-recovery program "is a course-specific, skill-based extended learning opportunity for students who have been unsuccessful in mastering content or skills required to have received course credit or earn promotion. Credit recovery courses are based on deficiencies rather than a repeat of the entire course or courses failed." Students had to meet certain qualifications to be eligible for the credit-recovery program, but the program was voluntary, not a requirement, for eligible students.

         On June 28, 2010, at approximately 11:14 a.m., Crawford informed Blunt that he had completed his course work for that day. According to Blunt, she did not speak to Crawford and when he left the classroom she did not know where he was going. Crawford's version of events is markedly different. In an affidavit, Crawford stated: "When I finished my work, I told Ms. Blunt that I was leaving class. She told me to go to McDonald's [fast-food restaurant] to get her lunch and to be back in no more than five to ten minutes. I wasn't going to get anything. She asked me to go." During his criminal trial stemming from the accident that underlies this case, Crawford expanded on this testimony:

"Q. How much time did y'all have for lunch?
"A. Well, class was over. She just asked me to get her something. And they --"Q. Okay. Who asked you to go get something?
"A. The teacher.
"Q. The teacher. Okay. So the teacher, as y'all were going to McDonald's, I guess said, 'Well, as long as you're going, would you pick me up something too?' Is that about right?
"A. No. She asked me. I didn't want nothing. They -- the teacher asked me to get her something. She gave me her money to get her something.
"....
"Q. And you said she told you to be back when?
"A. No later than five or ten minutes."

         Blunt adamantly denies that she asked Crawford to pick up lunch for her at McDonald's. She notes that Crawford's testimony was contrary to testimony at Crawford's criminal trial from fellow students Jestin White and Jessica White, who stated that Jestin White was the one who asked Crawford to go to McDonald's to get lunch. Blunt adds that, in his statement to police two days after the accident, Crawford made no mention of being asked by Blunt to go to McDonald's.

         It is undisputed that Crawford went to his vehicle in the Northridge parking lot along with several companions and that he drove to McDonald's and ordered food. According to Crawford and Jessica White, Crawford then drove his vehicle back in the direction of Northridge. Crawford testified that it took longer to get the food from McDonald's than he thought it would and that he was in a hurry to get back to the school campus because Blunt had told him to be gone no more than 5 or 10 minutes. Approximately one mile from the Northridge campus, on a two-lane public road, Crawford attempted to pass a vehicle in front of him by crossing a double-yellow center line and driving in the oncoming lane of traffic. In doing so, Crawford collided with a vehicle driven by Susan Kines Langston, a TCS teacher, in which Matthew Langston and Joshua Langston were passengers. Susan Langston was killed in the accident, and Matthew and Joshua were seriously injured and eventually had to be life-flighted to Children's Hospital in Birmingham.

         Crawford was charged, tried, and convicted of reckless manslaughter for his actions in causing Susan Langston's death. He was sentenced to five years and nine months in prison.

         On December 5, 2012, Keith Langston, as father and next friend of Matthew and Joshua, filed the present action in the Tuscaloosa Circuit Court against Blunt and Patsy Lowry, another TCS teacher who was an instructor at Northridge during the summer of 2010. Langston asserted claims of negligence and wantonness against Blunt and Lowry for failing to follow the "policies and procedures" of TCS, which failure allegedly proximately caused the injuries sustained by Matthew and Joshua Langston.[3]

         On November 16, 2016, Blunt and Lowry filed a summary-judgment motion and supporting evidentiary materials in which they asserted that they were entitled to State-agent immunity for all claims asserted against them in their individual capacities. On November 30, 2016, Langston filed a response in opposition to the summary-judgment motion. In that response, Langston contended, among other things, that Blunt and Lowry were not entitled to State-agent immunity because, he argued, they had violated detailed rules and regulations of TCS. On December 1, 2016, Blunt and Lowry filed a reply to Langston's response.

         On the same date, Lowry and Blunt filed a "Motion to Strike Portions of [Langston's] Evidentiary Submissions." In that motion, Lowry and Blunt asked the trial court to strike portions of testimony from various witnesses as well as several of Langston's document submissions. One of those documents was titled "Northridge High School Faculty Handbook" ("the faculty handbook"). In their December 1, 2016, motion to strike, Lowry and Blunt contended that the faculty handbook "does not qualify as admissible evidence under the business records exception to the hearsay rule, has not otherwise been properly authenticated, and [Langston has] not otherwise laid a proper predicate for the admissibility of this document."

         The next submission in this case occurred on January 28, 2018, when Langston filed a supplement to evidentiary submissions and an amended response to the summary-judgment motion. Langston's amended response was identical to his original response, except that it added a contention that Alabama's Administrative Code dictated that a school year consisted of both the regular academic year and the summer-school session that followed the academic year. On January 30, 2018, Lowry and Blunt responded to Langston's argument based on the Alabama Administrative Code.[4]

         On January 31, 2018, the trial court held a hearing on Lowry and Blunt's summary-judgment motion. On January 7, 2019, the trial court entered an order granting Lowry and Blunt's motion to strike certain portions of testimony from various witnesses but denying Lowry and Blunt's motion to strike the faculty handbook, concluding that "[q]uestions relating to the Faculty Handbook go to weight to be given the document rather than its admissibility." The trial court also entered a summary judgment in favor of Lowry as to all claims asserted against her. With respect to Blunt, the trial court concluded:

"Based upon the record before the Court, based upon the written submissions of the parties, based upon the arguments of counsel and based upon the Court's own research into the issues in this case, the Court hereby finds:
"....
"2. That genuine issues of material fact do exist regarding the claims as they relate to Defendant Sonia Blunt and said Defendant is not entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Blunt's Motion for Summary Judgment is hereby DENIED."

(Capitalization in original.)

         Blunt timely petitioned this Court for a writ of mandamus challenging the trial court's denial of her motion for a summary judgment.

         II. Standard of Review

"'While the general rule is that the denial of a motion for summary judgment is not reviewable, the exception is that the denial of a motion grounded on a claim of immunity is reviewable by petition for writ of mandamus. Ex parte Purvis, 689 So.2d 794 (Ala. 1996)....

         "'Summary judgment is appropriate only when "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and ... the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Rule 56(c)(3), Ala. R. Civ. P., Young v. La Quinta Inns, Inc., 682 So.2d 402 (Ala. 1996). A court considering a motion for summary judgment will view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, Hurst v. Alabama Power Co., 675 So.2d 397 (Ala. 1996), Fugua v. Ingersoll-Rand Co., 591 So.2d 486 (Ala. 1991); will accord the nonmoving party all reasonable favorable inferences from the evidence, Fugua, supra, Aldridge v. Valley Steel Constr., Inc., 603 So.2d 981 (Ala. 1992); and will resolve all reasonable doubts against the moving party, Hurst, supra, Ex parte Brislin, 719 So.2d 185 (Ala. 1998).

"'An appellate court reviewing a ruling on a motion for summary judgment will, de novo, apply these same standards applicable in the trial court. Fugua, supra, Brislin, supra. Likewise, the appellate court will consider only that factual material available of record to the trial court for its consideration in deciding the motion. Dynasty Corp. v. Alpha Resins Corp., 577 So.2d 1278 (Ala. 1991), Boland v. Fort Rucker Nat'l Bank, 599 So.2d 595 (Ala. 1992), Rowe v. Isbell, 599 So.2d 35 (Ala. 1992).'"

Ex parte Turner, 840 So.2d 132, 135 (Ala. 2002) (quoting Ex parte Rizk, 791 So.2d 911, 912-13 (Ala. 2000)). A writ of mandamus is an extraordinary remedy available only when the petitioner can demonstrate: "'(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 invoked jurisdiction of the court.'" Ex parte Nall, 879 So.2d 541, 543 (Ala. 2003) (quoting Ex parte BOC Grp., Inc., 823 So.2d 1270, 1272 (Ala. 2001)).

         III. Analysis

         Blunt contends that she is entitled to State-agent immunity and that, therefore, the trial court erred in denying her motion for a summary judgment.

"A State agent shall be immune from civil liability in his or her personal capacity when the conduct made the basis of the claim against the agent is based upon the agent's

"....

"(5) exercising judgment in the discharge of duties imposed by statute, rule, or regulation in releasing prisoners, counseling or releasing persons of unsound mind, or educating students.

"Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the foregoing statement of the rule, a State agent shall not be immune from civil liability in his or her personal capacity

"....

"(2) when the State agent acts willfully, ...


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