Alabama Appellate Opinions Released November 21, 2018
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Alabama Appellate Opinions Released 
November 21, 2018
Alabama Supreme Court
Court Determines Whether State Immunity Applies to Claims Asserted Against Former Representatives for the Alabama Space Science Exhibit Commission

Barnhart v. Ingalls  

In January 2014, the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts (“DEPA”) released an audit which deemed the Alabama Space Science Exhibit Commission (“Commission”) to be non-compliant with two Alabama compensation “benefits statutes.” Based on the DEPA audit, several former Commission employees filed a class-action suit against three Commission representatives in their official and individual capacities. In the Complaint, it was alleged that past and present Commission employees had not received all compensation to which they were entitled during their tenures with the Commission in violation of the Alabama “benefits statutes.” The Complaint also alleged that the Commission representatives were negligent and breached their fiduciary duty to the Commission employees by their alleged failure to comply with the two Alabama “benefit statutes.”

Finding that the former employees had satisfied the class-action certification requirements of Rule 23, the Madison Circuit Court certified as a class the past and present Commission employees identified in the Complaint. On the Commission representatives’ petition for a writ of mandamus contesting class-certification, the Alabama Supreme Court had to determine whether State immunity barred the former employees' (1) retrospective-relief and (2) individual-capacities claims against the Commission representatives before reaching the class-certification issue.

Regarding the retrospective-relief claim, the Commission representatives argued that claims asserted against State officials seeking allegedly owed backpay are claims against the State and thus barred by State immunity. Relying on the case Ex parte Bessemer Board of Education , 68 So.3d 782 (Ala. 2011), the former employees argued that State immunity did not apply because the Commission representatives had a legal duty to pay the Commission employees. The former employees argued further that the payment of compensation was a ministerial act rather than an exercise of discretion; thus, according to the former employees, a claim truly was not asserted against the State. Ultimately, the Alabama Supreme Court agreed with the former employees' argument stating that this case was one of statutory interpretation similar to Ex parte Bessemer Board of Education and held that State immunity did not bar the former employees' retrospective-relief claim.

However, the Court reached a different result for the individual-capacities claim. The former employees argued that State immunity should not bar their individual-capacities claim because the Commission representatives operated under a mistaken interpretation of the law. Although the Court found merit in the former employees' argument, the Court did not accept it. In reaching the conclusion that the individual-capacities claim was barred by State immunity, the Alabama Supreme Court focused on the nature of these claims, which were for negligence and breach of fiduciary duty as mentioned above. The Court noted that the Commission representatives’ duty to comply with the “benefits statutes” existed solely based on their official capacities in which they acted for the State. Thus, the claims asserted against the Commission representatives in their individual capacities implicated the State, which meant State immunity applied.
Alabama Court of Civil Appeals
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