Justia Alabama Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

by
James P. Key, Jr. appealed a circuit court order denying his motion to compel arbitration of his claims against Warren Averett, LLC, and Warren Averett Companies, LLC (collectively, "WA"). Key alleged that he was a certified public accountant who had been employed by WA for 25 years and had been a member of WA for 15 years; that he had executed a personal-services agreement ("PSA") with WA that included a noncompete clause; and that WA had sent him a letter terminating his employment. Key sought a judgment declaring "that the Non-Compete Clause and the financial penalty provision contained in the PSA is not applicable to Key and is an unlawful restraint of Key's ability to serve his clients as a professional." The Alabama Supreme Court found that whether Key's claims against WA had to be arbitrated was a threshold issue that should not have been decided by the circuit court; nor was it appropriate for the Supreme Court to settle the issue in this appeal. Accordingly, the circuit court's order was reversed, and the case was remanded for the circuit court to enter an order sending the case to arbitration for a determination of the threshold issue of arbitrability and staying proceedings in the circuit court during the pendency of the arbitration proceedings. View "Key v. Warren Averett, LLC, et al." on Justia Law

by
Dahlia McKinney, M.D., a defendant in the wrongful-death/medical negligence action, petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus directing the Jefferson Circuit Court to vacate an order compelling Dr. McKinney, ostensibly under Alabama's discovery rules, to alter the contents of a registered death certificate she prepared in connection with the death of Paydro White ("Paydro"). On December 31, 2013, Paydro sought medical treatment at the emergency department of Princeton Baptist Medical Center where he was diagnosed with possible pneumonia; he was discharged on that same date. The following afternoon, Paydro returned to the emergency department seeking follow-up care; he was formally admitted for treatment by the emergency physician on duty at that time. Later that evening, after Dr. McKinney began her evening shift, Paydro become unresponsive. Although he was initially successfully resuscitated, Paydro later died in the early morning hours of January 2, 2014. Dr. McKinney, who completed and signed Paydro's death certificate, identified the contributing causes of Paydro's death as "Pulseless electrical activity" due to "Acute Myocardial Infarction." Subsequent postmortem examinations and the autopsy of Paydro's body revealed that "the most likely cause of ... death [was] pulmonary Thromboembolism" -- a final diagnosis with which Dr. McKinney's later deposition testimony indicated she agreed. Dorothy White ("Dorothy"), Paydro's mother, was the personal representative of Paydro's estate. In that capacity, she sued numerous defendants allegedly connected with Paydro's medical treatment, including Dr. McKinney, largely arguing Paydro's death had been caused by the defendants' purported failure to timely diagnose and treat the pulmonary thromboembolism that ultimately caused Paydro's death. Dr. McKinney, who had provided no medical treatment to Paydro other than in connection with emergency resuscitation attempts, informally requested her voluntary dismissal as a defendant. In an email communication to Dr. McKinney's counsel, the estate's counsel indicated that a decision on that request would be aided by Dr. McKinney's voluntary amendment of the original cause of death indicated on Paydro's death certificate to identify his cause of death as a pulmonary thromboembolism. The Alabama Supreme Court concluded the trial court exceeded its discretion in compelling Dr. McKinney to amend the death certificate. Dr. McKinney therefore demonstrated a clear legal right to her requested relief. The trial court was ordered to vacate its order compelling Dr. McKinney to amend the cause of death on Paydro's death certificate. View "Ex parte Dahlia McKinney, M.D." on Justia Law

by
The Terminix International Co., L.P., and Terminix International, Inc. (collectively, "Terminix"), and Ken Stroh, an agent and employee of Terminix, appealed court orders appointing arbitrators, which were entered in two separate actions. The first action was commenced by Dauphin Surf Club Association, Inc. ("DSC"), an incorporated condominium owners' association, and multiple members of that association who owned individual condominium units. The second action was brought by Stonegate Condominium Owners' Association, Inc. ("Stonegate"), and multiple members of that association who owned individual condominium units. In 2006 and 2007, respectively, Terminix entered into contracts with DSC and Stonegate to provide protection from termites for the properties owned by DSC and Stonegate and their members. Both of those contracts included, among other things, an arbitration clause. After disputes regarding termite damage arose between Terminix and DSC and Stonegate, the DSC and Stonegate plaintiffs each petitioned for the appointment of an arbitrator to resolve the disputes. Defendants filed motions in opposition to the petitions, asserting that, because the National Arbitration Forum ("the NAF"), which had been designated as the arbitral forum in the arbitration agreement, was no longer administering consumer arbitrations, the claims could not be arbitrated by the NAF, as the parties had expressly agreed in the arbitration agreement, and that they could not be compelled to arbitrate in a manner inconsistent with the terms of the arbitration agreement. Plaintiffs countered that the contracts containing the arbitration agreement also contained a severability clause that should have been applied; the Federal Arbitration Act ("FAA") governed the agreement; language in the agreement demonstrated Terminix's primary intent was to arbitrate disputes (and that the choice of the NAF as the arbitral forum was an ancillary matter); and that defendants should have been judicially estopped from arguing that the selection of the NAF as the arbitral forum was integral to the arbitration agreement because they had taken the position in prior judicial proceedings that the courts presiding over those proceedings were authorized to appoint substitute arbitrators under the FAA. The Alabama Supreme Court agreed that the designation of the NAF as the arbitral forum in the agreement was ancillary rather than an integral and essential part of the agreements, the trial court therefore correctly granted plaintiffs' petitions to compel arbitration under the FAA. View "The Terminix International Co., L.P., et al. v. Dauphin Surf Club Association, Inc., et al." on Justia Law

by
Robert Robinson sued several timber companies for cutting timber on land, located between two creek beds, that Robinson alleged was his. The trial court entered a summary judgment in favor of the timber companies. Because Robinson failed to submit substantial evidence that he owned the land, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the judgment. View "Robinson v. Harrigan Timberlands Limited Partnership, et al." on Justia Law

by
The City of Trussville ("the City") appealed a circuit court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the Personnel Board of Jefferson County ("the Board") in the City's action seeking a judgment declaring that it had the authority to create and operate its own civil-service system. In 2018, the City requested that the Alabama attorney general issue an opinion regarding whether, once it had annexed land in St. Clair County, it was subject to being governed by the Board or could form its own civil- service system. The attorney general concluded that the City was not subject to the Board's civil-service system and, therefore, had the authority to establish its own civil-service system. However, the Alabama Supreme Court determined the attorney general did not consider what effect the settlement agreement, and the consent judgment ratifying that settlement agreement, entered in a 1991 action had on the question presented by the City for consideration. On April 23, 2019, the City passed Ordinance No. 2019-020-ADM, creating a civil-service system for City employees. The Board took the position that the City lacks the authority to form its own civil-service system and that the City is bound to continue under the jurisdiction of the Board. The Supreme Court was not persuaded by the legal grounds the City presented to support its appeal. The Court found the same cause of action was presented in both the 1991 action and here, and that the theory upon which the City sought to litigate the present action could have been litigated in the 1991 action, but was not. Accordingly, the City's present action was barred by the doctrine of res judicata. View "City of Trussville v. Personnel Board of Jefferson County" on Justia Law

by
In response to economic conditions related to the spread of COVID-19, Congress established several programs that made additional federal funds available to the states for providing enhanced unemployment-compensation benefits to eligible individuals. Alabama elected to participate in the programs, and Shentel Hawkins, Ashlee Lindsey, Jimmie George, and Christina Fox, were among the Alabamians who received the enhanced benefits. As the spread of COVID-19 waned, Governor Kay Ivey announced that Alabama would be ending its participation in the programs. When Alabama did so, the claimants received reduced unemployment-compensation benefits or, depending on their particular circumstances, no benefits at all. Two months later, the claimants sued Governor Ivey and Secretary of the Alabama Department of Labor Fitzgerald Washington in their official capacities, alleging that Alabama law did not permit them to opt Alabama out of the programs. After a circuit court dismissed the claimants' lawsuit based on the doctrine of State immunity, the claimants appealed. Finding no reversible error, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court. View "Hawkins, et al. v. Ivey, et al." on Justia Law

by
Robert Louis Dill appealed a circuit court judgment entered on a jury verdict in favor of Douglas Dill in Douglas's action contesting the purported will of Walter Dill, Jr. Walter and his wife Alva purchased a house across the street from Douglas (his son) and his wife Peggy, and Douglas' children. After Alva died, Douglas and Peggy assisted Walter with things such as preparing his meals and taking him to his appointments. Robert, Walter's brother, did not visit with Walter much before Alva's death because Alva did not care for Robert. However, after Alva died, Robert started visiting Walter and spending time with him on a frequent basis. Robert began taking Walter to certain places and appointments. By 2008, Walter did not really trust anyone but Robert and that Robert had "spread his wings over Walter." Peggy further stated that Robert had started turning Walter against Douglas. Walter had approximately $80,000 in a joint checking account with Douglas that was intended to help pay for Walter's future care. Douglas and Peggy discovered that Walter had written approximately $40,000 worth of checks from the joint account to Robert, one of which had been used to purchase Robert a vehicle. Thereafter, Douglas removed the $39,000 from the joint account and placed the money in an account solely in his name to prevent Walter from giving more money to Robert. Douglas and Robert separately petitioned an Alabama Probate Court seeking letters of guardianship and conservatorship over Walter. It appeared from the record that Walter once had a will that made Douglas the primary beneficiary of his estate. However, on December 11, 2013, Walter executed a new will ("the 2013 will") naming Robert as the executor and sole beneficiary of his estate. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed judgment in favor of Douglas, finding the 2013 will had been prepared by an attorney who had previously represented Robert, and Robert accompanied Walter to the attorney's office on the day the will was executed. Approximately one month after the 2013 will was executed, the probate court entered an order finding that Walter lacked the mental capacity to handle his affairs and appointed a permanent conservator for Walter. "Based on the foregoing, we cannot say that the circuit court erred in entering a judgment on the jury's verdict in favor of Douglas in the will contest." View "Dill v. Dill" on Justia Law

Posted in: Trusts & Estates
by
Susan Runnels petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to direct the trial court to enter a summary judgment in her favor of a spoliation-of-evidence claim asserted against her by Amir Fooladi, as father and next friend of Malia Fooladi ("Malia"), was barred by the defense of State-agent immunity. This case arose from an incident in which Malia, a four-year-old student in the prekindergarten program at Elsanor Elementary School, was injured while playing on playground equipment located at the school. Runnels was the principal of the school, operated by the Baldwin County Board of Education. In February 2016, an attorney retained by Malia's family sent a letter to the Board advising it of Malia's injuries and requesting that it preserve the glider. Runnels received a copy of a response letter sent by an attorney for the Board agreeing that the glider would be stored for an indefinite period and that the Board would provide advance notification before disposing of the glider. In response to those requests, Runnels asked the head custodian at the school to put the glider into storage on school grounds, and the head custodian moved the glider into the boiler room of the school. At some point between February 2016 and March 2018, a new custodial assistant at the school removed the glider from the boiler room and placed the glider in the trash. Fooladi alleged Runnels had been negligent and wanton: (1) in failing to ensure that the glider was appropriate for use on a school playground; (2) in failing to ensure that the glider would be safe for children to play on; (3) in failing to maintain the glider in proper working order; and (4) in failing to inspect the glider for defects. Fooladi further alleged that, by permitting the disposal of the glider, Runnels had spoliated evidence, and that spoliation severely impacted Fooladi's ability to prove the product-liability claims asserted against the manufacturer of the glider. Because Fooladi presented no arguments or evidence regarding Runnels's entitlement to State-agent immunity with respect to the spoliation-of-evidence claim, the Supreme Court concluded Fooladi failed to carry his burden of either raising a genuine issue of material fact as to Runnels's entitlement to State-agent immunity or showing that one of the exceptions to State-agent immunity applied in this case. Runnels' petition was granted and the trial court directed to enter an order granting her motion for summary judgment. View "Ex parte Susan Runnels." on Justia Law

by
In May 2018, Howard Cole Burton ("Cole") and Nicholas Hood ("Nicholas") were Auburn University students enrolled in the field-camp course offered by the Department of Geosciences. As part of that geology course, students participated in a series of field exercises, including traveling to geologically significant sites in Alabama. One of the geologically significant sites in Alabama is known as "the Gadsden site," considered a "world-renowned example of a foreland-fold-and-thrust belt." Before the field-exercise portion of the course began, the faculty conducted an informational meeting to brief the students on safety and the specifics of what they could expect to encounter during the field exercises. At that meeting, the students were told to wear bright colors during field exercises for the purpose of staying visible to drivers when near a roadway and to hunters when in a wooded area. No safety cones, signs, or flags were placed along the section of the highway where the group was conducting the field exercise to alert oncoming traffic as to the presence of the group. The students began working on the field exercise approximately 12 to 15 feet from the edge of the highway. Jennifer Fulkerson was driving southbound on Highway 431 in an impaired state and under the influence of several prescription medications. Fulkerson's driver's side tires ran off the highway into the median, causing Fulkerson to react and overcorrect, ultimately striking Cole and Nicholas. Cole suffered severe injuries, and Nicholas died approximately one month after the accident from the injuries he had sustained. Caitlin Hood, as the personal representative of Nicholas's estate, and Cole individually sued Fulkerson, among others, asserting various claims arising out of the accident. At issue in this appeal was whether the University faculty were entitled to State-agent immunity from suit. The Alabama Supreme Court concluded the University defendant were indeed entitled to such immunity, and affirmed summary judgment entered by the trial court in defendants' favor. View "Burton v. Hawkins, et al." on Justia Law

by
Equivest Financial, LLC, bought property owned by Mark Stiff and Jim Stiff at a tax sale. The Alabama Supreme Court later declared that sale void. After the case was remanded for further proceedings, including consideration of Equivest's alternative claim for relief, the trial court entered judgment in Equivest's favor. Mark appealed that judgment, arguing that the trial court erred: (1) by awarding Equivest interest on the amount it bid in excess of the delinquent taxes; and (2) by awarding Equivest interest that accrued, and by failing to award him costs that he incurred, after he tendered an offer of judgment. The Supreme Court rejected these arguments and affirmed the trial court's judgment. View "Stiff v. Equivest Financial, LLC" on Justia Law