Justia Alabama Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Government & Administrative Law
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Bernadine Odom appealed a summary judgment entered in favor of several supervisory officers in the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, Department of Public Safety, Highway Patrol Division, in a lawsuit based on the misconduct of a state trooper. In 2015, Odom was involved in an automobile accident. State Trooper Samuel Houston McHenry II responded to the scene. Odom's vehicle was inoperable, so after McHenry investigated the accident, he gave her a ride, ostensibly to a safe location. At 12:12 a.m., he radioed his post dispatcher that he was en route with Odom to an exit about 10 miles from the accident scene. He did not mention his vehicle's mileage as of the time he left the accident scene. Instead of taking Odom directly to the exit, McHenry took her to a wooded area and sexually assaulted her. At 12:21 a.m., he radioed that he was dropping Odom off at the exit, and at 12:25 he radioed that he had completed the drop-off. Within two days, McHenry's employment was terminated based on his misconduct. McHenry was charged with first-degree rape, and he pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct. Odom then filed this civil lawsuit against McHenry and law enforcement officials alleging violations of various law-enforcement policies and procedures, and well as failing to properly train and supervise McHenry. Because Odom could not demonstrate the supervisory defendants were not entitled to State-agent immunity, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed judgment in their favor. View "Odom v. Helms et al." on Justia Law

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Alabama imposed a license or privilege tax on tobacco products stored or received for distribution within the State ("the tobacco tax"). Under Alabama law, the Department of Revenue could confiscate tobacco products on which the tobacco tax had not been paid. Panama City Wholesale, Inc. ("PCW") was a wholesale tobacco-products distributor located in Panama City, Florida, and owned by Ehad Ahmed. One of PCW's customers, Yafa Wholesale, LLC ("Yafa"), was an Alabama tobacco distributor owned by Sayeneddin Thiab ("Thiab"). On October 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael destroyed the roof on PCW's warehouse. Department surveillance agents observed observed one of Thiab's vehicles being unloaded at two of the recently rented storage units. The day after that, agents observed one of Thiab's delivery vehicles being loaded with tobacco products from a recently rented unit following the storm. On October 23, 2018, the Department confiscated 1,431,819 cigars from four storage units leased by persons connected to Yafa and Thiab. It is undisputed that the tobacco tax had not been paid on the cigars. Ahmed filed an action against Vernon Barnett, as Commissioner of the Department, seeking a judgment declaring that the cigars were Ahmed's and that they were not subject to confiscation. The case was transferred to the Jefferson Circuit Court, PCW was substituted for Ahmed, and the parties were realigned to make the Commissioner of the Department the plaintiff and PCW the defendant in a civil forfeiture action. On PCW's motion, the circuit court entered a summary judgment in PCW's favor, ruling that the Commissioner failed to present substantial evidence that the cigars were in the possession of a retailer or semijobber, as the court believed was required by the confiscation statute. The Commissioner appealed. A divided Alabama Supreme Court reversed, concluding the circuit court erred in interpreting the confiscation statute to apply only to untaxed tobacco products in the possession of retailers and semijobbers, and because the Commissioner presented substantial evidence that the cigars were subject to confiscation under a correct interpretation of the statute, the Court reversed summary judgment and remanded for further proceedings. View "Alabama Department of Revenue v. Panama City Wholesale, Inc." on Justia Law

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Justin Craft and Jason Craft appealed the grant of summary judgment entered in favor of members of the Lee County Board of Education ("the Board") and the Superintendent of the Lee County Schools, Dr. James McCoy. During July, August, and September 2016, the Board hired S&A Landscaping to perform three projects of overdue lawn maintenance at Lee County schools. S&A Landscaping was owned by an aunt by marriage of Marcus Fuller, the Assistant Superintendent of the Lee County Schools. The Crafts, who were employed as HVAC technicians by the Board, questioned the propriety of hiring S&A Landscaping for those projects. The Crafts expressed their concerns with various current and former Board members and individuals at the State Ethics Commission ("the Commission") and at the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts. Although an individual at the Commission instructed Jason Craft on how to file a complaint with the Commission, neither of the Crafts did so. During this time, McCoy, Fuller, and others suspected various maintenance employees, including the Crafts, of misusing their Board-owned vehicles and misrepresenting their work hours. To investigate their suspicions, the Board had GPS data-tracking devices installed in Board-owned vehicles being used by employees to monitor their use and the employees' activities. A review of the GPS data indicated that certain employees, including the Crafts, had violated Board policy by inappropriately using the Board-owned vehicles and by inaccurately reporting their work time. McCoy sent letters to the Crafts and two other employees, advising them that he had recommended to the Board the termination of their employment. The letters detailed dates, times, and locations of specific incidents of alleged misconduct. The Crafts were placed on administrative leave, then returned to work to custodial positions that did not require them to use Board-owned vehicles. The Crafts appealed their job transfers, arguing they had not been afforded due process. An administrative law judge determined the Students First Act did not provide an opportunity for a hearing before the imposition of a job transfer. The Crafts thereafter sued the Board members and McCoy, seeking declaratory relief based on alleged violations of the anti-retaliation provision of section 36-25-24, Ala. Code 1975, arguing that they were punished for contacting the Commission. The Alabama Supreme Court determined the anti-retaliation protection was triggered only when an employee filed a complaint with the Commission. Because it was undisputed the Crafts did not file a complaint, they were not entitled to those statutory protections. Therefore, summary judgment in favor of the Board and McCoy was affirmed. View "Craft v. McCoy et al." on Justia Law

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Deer breeders Terry Kennedy and Johnny McDonald sought to raise and hunt bigger deer by artificially inseminating whitetail deer with mule-deer semen. Whether they could do so depended on whether the resulting hybrid deer were covered by Alabama's definition of "protected game animals" in section 9-11-30(a), Ala. Code 1975. On a motion for a judgment on the pleadings, the Circuit Court concluded that, because the hybrid deer were the offspring of a female whitetail deer, they were "protected game animals," both by virtue of the inclusion in that definition of "whitetail deer ... and their offspring," and by virtue of an old legal doctrine called partus sequitur ventrem. The trial court therefore entered a judgment in favor of the deer breeders. The Alabama Supreme Court disagreed: because the modifier "and their offspring" in section 9-11-30(a) did not reach back to apply to the term "whitetail deer," and because the Latin maxim cited as an alternative theory for relief had no application in this case, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded. View "Blankenship v. Kennedy" on Justia Law

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Joel Kennamer appealed a circuit court's dismissal of his complaint seeking a declaratory judgment, a preliminary injunction, and a permanent injunction against the City of Guntersville, the City's mayor Leigh Dollar, each member of the Guntersville City Council, and Lakeside Investments, LLC ("Lakeside"). Kennamer's complaint sought to prevent the City from leasing certain City property to Lakeside. Kennamer asserted that the City had erected a pavilion on "Parcel One" for public use and that residents used Parcel One for public fishing, fishing tournaments, truck and tractor shows, and public festivals and events. As for Parcel Two, Kennamer alleged that in 2000, the City petitioned to condemn property belonging to CSX Transportation, Inc. ("CSX"), "for the purpose of constructing [a] public boat dock and a public recreational park." In 2019, the City approved an ordinance declaring the development property "is no longer needed for public or municipal purposes." The development agreement, as updated, again affirmed that the development property would be used "for a mixed-use lakefront development containing restaurants, entertainment, retail, office space, high density multi-family residential, and other appropriate commercial uses, including parking." Thereafter, Kennamer sued the City defendants arguing the City lacked the authority to lease to a third-party developer City property that had been dedicated for use as, and/or was being used as, a public park. Finding that the City had the statutory authority to lease the property to the third-party developer, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court's dismissal. View "Kennamer v. City of Guntersville et al." on Justia Law

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On April 27, 2015, Charles Hunter ran a red light at an intersection within the corporate limits of the City of Montgomery. At some point "within the past two years," Mike Henderson also ran a red light at another intersection within the corporate limits of the City. The automated-camera equipment at the intersections detected and photographed the plaintiffs' vehicles running the red lights. The City of Montgomery ("the City") and American Traffic Solutions, Inc. ("ATS") (collectively, "the defendants"), were granted a permissive appeal of a circuit court order denying their motion to dismiss a complaint, seeking, among other things, a declaratory judgment, filed by plaintiffs Hunter and Henderson. In their complaint, plaintiffs challenged a local municipal ordinance authorizing the use of cameras for issuing traffic citations. Plaintiffs claimed that Act No. 2009-740, Ala. Acts 2009, and sections of the Montgomery Municipal Code allowing for the ticketing of drivers who were photographed proceeding through red lights violated sections 89, 104, and 105, Ala. Const. 1901. The Alabama Supreme Court determined there was no justiciable controversy between the parties at the time the declaratory-judgment action was filed, therefore, the circuit court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the action, and should have dismissed it. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the circuit court's order denying the motion to dismiss, and the matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "City of Montgomery v. Hunter" on Justia Law

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Josie Wright was injured when she fell in front of the Millbrook Civic Center. She and her husband James sued the City of Millbrook based on her injuries. The City's liability turned on a question of statutory interpretation. The City asked the Alabama Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus to direct the Elmore Circuit Court to grant the City's motion for a summary judgment on the basis of Article 2 of the recreational-use statutes, sections 35-15- 20 through -28, Ala. Code 1975. That article immunized landowners from liability for accidents that occur on "outdoor recreational land." Because the City did not show the civic center was included within the definition of "outdoor recreational land" in Article 2, the Court denied the petition. View "Ex parte City of Millbrook." on Justia Law

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The Talladega County Commission ("the Commission") appealed a trial court's dismissal of its mandamus petition filed against the Commission by the City of Lincoln ("the City"), that left in place a prior order interpreting provisions of a local act. At issue was a dispute between the Commission and the City regarding the interpretation of Act No. 91-533, Ala. Acts 1991 ("the Act"), as amended by Act No. 2000-758, Ala. Acts 2000 ("the amended Act"). The Act, which local to and operative only in Talladega County, levied special county "privilege license and excise taxes" in parts of Talladega County located outside the corporate limits of cities within the county. Initially, the Act required the revenues from the taxes to be used for the retirement of the County's indebtedness. The amended Act, enacted after the retirement of the County's indebtedness, created the "Talladega County Special Tax Fund" ("the fund") into which all revenues from the taxes, less the costs of collection, were to be deposited. The City claimed in its petition that the Commission did not have any discretion to withhold the disbursement of moneys contained in the fund once the delegation had authorized the disbursement. The City asked the trial court to order the Commission to disburse $494,639 collected to the City as had been recommended by the TCEDA and approved by the delegation. In order to resolve the Commission's declaratory-judgment counterclaim, the trial court was required to determine whether the Commission had authority under the amended Act to "veto, overrule, or otherwise deny" the delegation's approval of the TCEDA's recommendation. At the time the trial court entered the October 30 order on the Commission's declaratory- judgment counterclaim, the Alabama Supreme Court determined there existed a clear justiciable controversy between the City and the Commission concerning the Commission's duties and authority under the amended Act. Once State representatives withdrew their approval, a necessary precursor to the disbursement of moneys from the fund under the amended Act, the City was no longer entitled to the funds and there ceased to be a controversy between the City and the Commission. The Supreme Court therefore determined the action was moot and dismissed the appeal. View "Talladega County Commission v. State of Alabama ex rel. City of Lincoln" on Justia Law

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Shannon Robbins, the former county engineer of Cleburne County, Alabama, sued the Cleburne County Commission ("the Commission") alleging breach of contract after the Commission denied the validity of a renewal option in his employment agreement. To decide his appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court had to determine whether the Commission was authorized by the legislature to enter into that employment agreement. Because the Supreme Court determined Robbins could not prevail regardless of which potentially applicable statute gave the Commission authority to contract for the employment of a county engineer, it affirmed the trial court's dismissal of his case. View "Robbins v. Cleburne County Commission" on Justia Law

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Consolidated petitions for a writ of mandamus required the Alabama Supreme Court to consider the objections of four nonparty witnesses to subpoenas issued by the Utilities Board of the City of Daphne ("Daphne Utilities"). In case no. 1171028, two of the witnesses asked the Court to vacate an order entered by the trial court requiring them to produce certain electronic information. In case no. 1180360, three of the witnesses asked the Court to vacate an order entered by the trial court allowing subpoenas for their past employment records to be issued to their current employers. The Court denied the petition in case no. 1171028, finding a favorable decision resulting from a review would not alter the parties' already existing discovery obligations; the Court granted the petition and issued a writ of mandamus in case no. 1180360, finding that because Daphne Utilities' subpoenas demanding employment records from whistleblowers' employers were not proportional to the needs of the case and were not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. View "Ex parte Michael Wade Hogeland, Robert Miller, Vanna Trott." on Justia Law