Justia Alabama Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law
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Alabama Power Company ("Alabama Power"), B&N Clearing and Environmental, LLC ("B&N"), and Jettison Environmental, LLC ("Jettison") petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus directing the Montgomery Circuit Court to vacate its order denying their motions to transfer this action to the Autauga Circuit Court and to enter an order granting the motions. In 2019, Zane Yates Curtis, a North Carolina resident who was employed by B&N, was killed when a portion of his tractor-trailer made contact with an energized overhead power line in Autauga County. At the time, Zane was dumping mulch at a landfill in Prattville that was operated by JB Waste Connection, LLC. Rachel Curtis, as the administrator of Zane's estate, filed a complaint for worker's compensation benefits against B&N in the Montgomery Circuit Court. B&N was a Delaware limited-liability company whose principal address was in Houston, Texas. It did not have a physical office in the State of Alabama, it did not have a principal office in Montgomery County or any other Alabama county, and none of its members were residents of Montgomery County or any other Alabama county. Rachel amended her complaint to include a workers’ compensation claim against B&N, and negligence and wantonness claims against Alabama Power, Jettison, and JB Waste. Alabama Power was an Alabama corporation that had its principal place of business in Birmingham. Jettison was an Alabama limited-liability company that had its principal place of business in Autauga County. JB Waste was an Alabama limited-liability company with an office in Montgomery County and did business in Montgomery County and Autauga County. B&N filed answers to both complaints, specifically including the defense of improper venue. Because venue in Montgomery County was not proper as to B&N when the action was commenced, the Alabama Supreme Court found the trial court exceeded its discretion in denying the motions to transfer the case to Autauga County, where venue would have been proper. The writ petition was granted and the Montgomery Court ordered to transfer the case to Autauga. View "Ex parte Alabama Power Company, et al." on Justia Law

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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

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Tiffina McQueen petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to direct a circuit court to vacate its order directing her that her compulsory counterclaims would be tried separately from the claims raised by Yukita Johnson, the plaintiff below. In 2020, Johnson sued R&L Foods, LLC, petitioner, Michael McQueen ("McQueen"), Michael London, and Joe Fortner alleging McQueen threatened her over her work performance one day. Johnson phoned Fornter, a regional manager and reported McQueen; she asked Fortner if she could leave and go home. Fortner allegedly phoned McQueen over Johnson's allegations, but did not give Johnson permission to leave for the day. Notwithstanding the call, Johnson alleged McQueen still berated her, with petitioner joining in, retreving a handgun from a bag she was carrying, and gave the gun to her brother, McQueen. Johnson alleged McQueen fired several shots at her while inside the restaurant. As she fled, McQueen allegedly gave the gun to London, another employee, and London then fired several more shots at her from inside the restaurant. Johnson averred that customers of the restaurant and of a nearby business called law-enforcement officers of the incident. Johnson alleged that, after the shooting, she telephoned Fortner and told him about the incident and that Fortner telephoned the petitioner and then drove to the restaurant. Law-enforcement officers arrested McQueen and London. Johnson alleged that law-enforcement officers caught petitioner attempting to destroy video-surveillance footage of the incident and attempting to hide the handgun that was used in the incident. Petitioner was arrested for tampering with evidence. Johnson further alleged that, unbeknownst to the law-enforcement officers, Fortner had instructed petitioner to delete the video-surveillance footage of the incident. R&L Foods terminated Johnson's employment, but did not terminate petitioner's. Johnson asserted multiple claims arising from the altercation with petitioner and her brother. The Alabama Supreme Court determined that nothing in the facts of this case demonstrated that separate trials on Johnson's claims or in the counterclaim would further the convenience of the parties, would avoid prejudice to the parties, or would be "conducive to expedition and economy." Accordingly, the trial court exceeded its discretion when it ordered separate trials in this case. The petition was granted and the writ was issued. View "Ex parte Tiffina McQueen." on Justia Law

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This case involved a petition for a writ of mandamus filed by defendants Shane Taylor ("Taylor") and Shane A. Taylor & Associates, P.C. ("the law firm"), asking the Alabama Supreme Court to direct the Mobile Circuit Court to vacate its March 22, 2021, order denying their motion to strike the jury demand in the complaint filed against them by plaintiff Kimberly Hall-Smith, and to enter a new order granting their motion to strike. Taylor was a licensed attorney; Hall-Smith worked as paralegal for the law firm for a period. The law firm and Hall-Smith entered into an "Employee Confidentiality Agreement" ("the agreement"), which included a jury waiver provision should any litigation arise between them. Hall-Smith signed the agreement. Subsequently, the law firm terminated her employment. Hall-Smith then sued Taylor and the law firm alleging Taylor negligently, recklessly, and/or intentionally subjected her to, among other things, "harmful, unwanted, offensive and sexually charged physical contact." She asserted claims of negligence and/or wantonness and the tort of outrage/intentional infliction of emotional distress against Taylor and the law firm. Hall-Smith further asserted claims of assault, battery, and invasion of privacy against Taylor. Finally, the complaint included a demand for a trial by jury. Taylor and the law firm filed a motion to strike Hall-Smith's jury demand based on the jury-waiver provision included in the agreement. They asserted that Hall-Smith's claims clearly arose from her employment with the law firm and that their counterclaims against Hall-Smith "are related to both the subject matter of the [agreement] and [Hall-Smith's] employment." The Supreme Court agreed that Hall-Smith's claims against the law firm were related to her employment, and she waived her right to a jury trial as to those claims. Therefore, the trial court erred when it denied defendants' motion to strike the demand for a jury trial. The Court issued the writ and directed the trial court to enter an order granting defendants' motion. View "Ex parte Shane Taylor and Shane A. Taylor & Associates, P.C." on Justia Law

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Patrick Jackson appealed the grant of summary judgment entered in favor of Voncille Allen, as the personal representative of the estate of Valerie Allen ("the estate"), and Penn Tank Lines, Inc. ("PTL"). In 2016, Jackson was injured in an automobile accident while receiving training and riding as a passenger in a tractor-tanker trailer commercial motor vehicle ("the CMV") driven by Valerie Allen ("Allen"). Allen died as a result of the accident. Jackson was an employee of PTL and was being trained by Allen at the time of the accident. Allen owned the CMV, and PTL was leasing the vehicle from Allen, who worked for PTL, delivering fuel, under an independent-contractor agreement. Jackson received medical treatment for his injuries after the accident, and PTL's workers' compensation insurance covered the costs of the treatment. In 2018, Jackson sued the estate and PTL, alleging claims of negligence and "gross negligence and/or wantonness" against the estate and a claim of negligent or wanton hiring, training, and supervision against PTL; in addition, Jackson sought to hold PTL vicariously liable for Allen's actions through the doctrine of respondeat superior. After review, the Alabama Supreme Court affirm the judgment insofar as the trial court determined that PTL was entitled to complete immunity from Jackson's claims against it pursuant to the exclusive-remedy provisions of Workers' Compensation Act. The Court reversed insofar as the trial court determined, as a matter of law, that Allen was PTL's agent under the purview of the exclusive-remedy provisions of the Act. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Jackson v. Allen" on Justia Law

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Steve Lands appealed summary judgment entered in favor of Betty Ward d/b/a Lucky B's Trucking ("Lucky B") in a suit he filed seeking damages for injuries sustained on the job. The circuit court entered summary judgment in favor of Lucky B on both of Lands's claims against it -- negligence and wantonness -- because it held that Lucky B did not owe Lands a duty. Tennessee Valley Land and Timber, LLC ("TVL&T"), contracted with Lands to haul timber for processing at various locations in the Southeast. Kenneth Ward, the owner of TVL&T, provided Lands with a 1994 Peterbilt 379 Truck ("the truck") to make the deliveries. According to Lands, when Kenneth first provided the truck, he told Lands that it was sometimes difficult to start. If the truck would not start, Kenneth instructed Lands to use a "hot-wire" method, which required Lands to use a 12-inch piece of partially exposed wire to "jump" the truck while its ignition was left in the on position. Although TVL&T allowed Lands to use the truck for work, the truck was owned by Lucky B. After a delivery, Lands had to hot-wire the truck to start it. Lands put the truck in neutral, engaged the parking brake, and got out of the truck to use the hot-wire method. With both feet on the front-wheel axle and a cigarette lighter in hand, he lifted the hood and connected the 12-inch piece of wire to the firewall solenoid. The truck jumped back to life and sent Lands to the ground. The truck then rolled over Lands, severing the muscles in the lower half of his leg. Lands sued Lucky B, TVL&T, and other entities for negligence and wantonness. The essence of Lands's claims was that Lucky B, as the owner of the truck, had a duty under statute, regulation, and common law to inspect the truck and maintain it in safe condition. By failing to inspect and maintain it, he argued, the truck fell into disrepair and triggered the sequence of events that caused his injuries. The Alabama Supreme Court concluded Lands made out a prima facie case of negligence. While questions about causation and his own possible negligence remained, the Court found Lands was entitled to have those questions answered by a jury. The Court therefore reversed the trial court's summary judgment on that claim and remanded the case for further proceedings. With respect to Lands' wantonness claims, the Court found no evidence of heightened culpability required to prove wantonness. Judgment as to that claim was affirmed. View "Lands v. Ward d/b/a Lucky B's Trucking" on Justia Law

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Nucor Steel Tuscaloosa, Inc. ("Nucor"), appealed the grant of summary judgment entered in favor of Zurich American Insurance Company ("Zurich") and Onin Staffing, LLC ("Onin"), on claims asserted by Nucor arising from an alleged breach of an indemnification agreement. Nucor operated a steel-manufacturing facility in Tuscaloosa. Nucor had an internship program that offered part-time work to technical-school students, who, as part of the internship program, earned both academic credit and work experience relevant to their vocational training. In 2010, Nucor entered into a "Temporary Services Agency Agreement" ("the TSA Agreement") with Onin, a personnel-staffing agency, whereby Onin was to manage the employment of the technical-school students selected by Nucor for its internship program. Korey Ryan was a student at Shelton State Community College who applied for Nucor's internship program through Shelton State. In October 2014, Ryan was killed while working in the course of his duties at the Nucor facility. Ricky Edwards, a Nucor employee, directed Ryan to stand in a certain area in front of a water filter so that he would be clear of a moving crane. Edwards stated that he then turned his attention back to the load and began moving the crane. Ryan's right boot was struck by and became caught underneath the gearbox as the crane was moving. Ryan was dragged by the crane along the concrete floor through the narrow passageway between the crane and the warehouse wall, where he was crushed to death against a building support beam. Ryan's estate brought a wrongful-death action against Nucor; OSHA cited Nucor for a "serious" safety violation and fined it. Zurich issued a letter to Nucor and Onin in which it questioned whether the general-liability policy afforded coverage for the claims asserted in the wrongful-death action. Zurich noted that neither the indemnification provision in the TSA Agreement nor the additional-insured endorsement contained in the policy applied to in instances when the alleged "bodily injury" and/or "property damage" was caused by Nucor’s sole wrongful conduct. The Alabama Supreme Court determined the particular facts and circumstances underlying the wrongful- death action did not trigger the indemnification provision and the payment of an insurance benefit; rather, the facts and circumstances voided the indemnification provision altogether. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the insurance company. View "Nucor Steel Tuscaloosa, Inc. v. Zurich American Insurance Company et al." on Justia Law

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Laura Register appealed the grant of summary judgment entered in favor of Outdoor Aluminum, Inc., as to her claim alleging retaliatory discharge. Register worked as a laborer for Outdoor Aluminum. As part of her employment, Register laid out metal material, drilled or punched holes in the material, and deburred and cut the material. Register punched holes in the metal material with a hydraulic-press machine. The hydraulic press became misaligned and was not punching through the metal. When Register attempted to fix the press, the press exploded, causing a two-inch long and half-inch thick piece of metal to strike Register on the head above her right eye and temple. Register reported the incident to her supervisor, Roger Wise. As a result of the incident, Register's neck and head were injured and she had headaches, blurred vision, dizziness, balance problems, and pain. Register sought workers' compensation benefits and medical treatment from Outdoor Aluminum. Approximately a year after Register’s accident and subsequent medical treatments, Outdoor Aluminum management expressed concern with the length of Register’s rehabilitation. In June 2017, a nurse case manager reported to Outdoor Aluminum that Register had been released to full duty with zero impairment by one doctor; by July, Register had not returned to work under advice of another doctor. Because she had not returned to work, and based on the nurse case manager’s report, Outdoor Aluminum terminated Register. In 2018, Register sued Outdoor Aluminum seeking workers' compensation benefits and damages for retaliatory discharge. The parties engaged in discovery. In May 2020, Outdoor Aluminum moved for summary judgment, arguing Register could not show that her workers' compensation claim was the sole motivating factor behind the termination of her employment. The Alabama Supreme Court reversed, finding Register presented substantial evidence that there were genuine issues of material fact that should have been resolved by a jury. View "Register v. Outdoor Aluminum, Inc." on Justia Law

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This case presented an issue of first impression for the Alabama Supreme Court: whether a noncompetition agreement executed ancillary to the sale of a business terminates upon the death of the individual subject to the covenant not to compete. The Court found that based the specific facts of this case, the noncompetition agreement here did not impose any affirmative obligations on the decedent, and was executed separately from the other agreements relating to the sale of the business. Accordingly, the Court held the noncompetition agreement did not terminate. View "Boyd v. Mills" on Justia Law

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Cobbs, Allen & Hall, Inc. ("Cobbs Allen"), and CAH Holdings, Inc. ("CAH Holdings") (collectively,"CAH"), appealed the grant of summary judgment entered in favor of EPIC Holdings, Inc. ("EPIC"), and EPIC employee Crawford E. McInnis, with respect to CAH's claims of breach of contract and tortious interference with a prospective employment relationship. Cobbs Allen was a regional insurance and risk-management firm specializing in traditional commercial insurance, surety services, employee-benefits services, personal-insurance services, and alternative-risk financing services. CAH Holdings was a family-run business. The families, the Rices and the Densons, controlled the majority, but pertinent here, owned less than 75% of the stock in CAH Holdings. Employees who were "producers" for CAH had the opportunity to own stock in CAH Holdings, provided they met certain sales thresholds; for CAH Holdings, the equity arrangement in the company was dictated by a "Restated Restrictive Stock Transfer Agreement." For several years, McInnis and other individuals who ended up being defendants in the first lawsuit in this case, were producers for CAH, and McInnis was also a shareholder in CAH Holdings. In the fall of 2014, a dispute arose between CAH and McInnis and those other producers concerning the management of CAH. CAH alleged that McInnis and the other producers had violated restrictive covenants in their employment agreements with the aim of helping EPIC. Because of the dispute, CAH fired McInnis, allegedly "for cause," and in November 2014 McInnis went to work for EPIC, becoming the local branch manager at EPIC's Birmingham office. After review, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court's judgment finding CAH's breach-of-contract claim against McInnis and EPIC failed because no duty not to disparage parties existed in the settlement agreement. EPIC was not vicariously liable for McInnis's alleged tortious interference because McInnis's conduct was not within the line and scope of his employment with EPIC. EPIC also was not directly liable for McInnis's alleged tortious interference because it did not ratify McInnis's conduct as it did not know about the conduct until well after it occurred. However, the Supreme Court disagreed with the circuit court's conclusion that McInnis demonstrated that he was justified as a matter of law in interfering with CAH's prospective employment relationship with Michael Mercer. Based upon the admissible evidence, an issue of fact existed as to whether McInnis gave Mercer honest advice. Therefore, the judgment of the circuit court was affirmed in part, reversed in part, and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Cobbs, Allen & Hall, Inc., and CAH Holdings, Inc. v. EPIC Holdings, Inc., and McInnis." on Justia Law