Dees v. Coaker

Decision Date18 June 2010
Docket Number2080135.,Alabama Supreme Court 1081451.
Citation51 So.3d 323,264 Ed. Law Rep. 493
PartiesNollie DEES et al. v. Linda COAKER et al.
CourtAlabama Court of Civil Appeals

Martin R. Pearson of Turner, Onderdonk, Kimbrough, Howell, Huggins & Bradley, PA, Chatom; and Carl Johnson and Samantha K. Smith of Bishop, Colvin, Johnson & Kent, LLC, Birmingham, for appellant.

J. Cecil Gardner and Allison Kahalley of The Gardner Firm, P.C., Mobile; and Sam Heldman of The Gardner Firm, P.C., Washington, D.C., for appellees.

THOMPSON, Presiding Judge.

Nollie Dees, Elaine Beech, Fred Thomas, Clatis Becton, and Kesler Weaver, Sr., all of whom are members of the Washington County Board of Education ("the Board"), and Tim Savage, who serves as the Superintendent of Education in Washington County (collectively, "the defendants"), appeal from the Washington Circuit Court's judgment in favor of Linda Coaker, Nelson Thompson, Leverne Thompson, and Jean Guys, all of whom are employees of the Board (collectively, "the plaintiffs"). For the reasons stated herein, we affirm the trial court's judgment in part, vacate it in part, and remand the cause.

The Board employs several classifications of employees, including, among others, teachers, school secretaries, and a category of employees that it classifies as "support personnel." The latter category of employees includes teachers' aides, bus drivers, janitorial workers, computer technicians, and computer aides. The plaintiffs are all categorized as support personnel by the Board. For most of its employment categories, the Board has adopted a salary structure that includes a schedule with incremental salary increases, or steps, based on employment longevity. The Board has not adopted such a salary system for its support personnel. Instead, the Board has prepared a single-page document that lists all the types of support-personnel jobs and provides a single salary amount for each job without any steps in the salary schedule. Thus, for example, all bus drivers are paid the same amount, regardless of any differences in employment length, driving record, driving ability, or other characteristics.

On November 17, 2007, the plaintiffs filed an action against the defendants. The plaintiffs named the defendants in their official capacities only. 1 The plaintiffs alleged that the fact that the Board did not compensate them according to a salary schedule that included steps based on their length of employment violated Alabama law, which, they contended, requires local boards of education to implement for each classification of its employees a salary schedule that includes steps based on length of service. The plaintiffs sought a writ of mandamus directing the defendants to "establish and maintain a proper salary schedule which includes step increases in compensation based upon length of service," to declare that the defendants' failure to have established such a salary schedule violated Alabama law, and to enjoin the defendants to establish and maintain such a salary schedule. 2

On April 21, 2008, the plaintiffs and the defendants filed cross-motions for a summaryjudgment. In support of their motion, the plaintiffs argued that the salary system in place for support personnel did not comply with § 16-22-10(f), Ala.Code 1975, which provides that "[e]ach city and county board of education shall establish and maintain a written salary schedule for each class and type of employee." They argued that a "schedule" is a "list, table, or matrix that includes more than one entry" and that, as a result, the statutory mandate to provide a "salary schedule" for "each class and type of employee" required more than just a single entry as to the salary for each of the support-personnel jobs. That the legislature intended a multi-entry list of salaries for each job was further evidenced, the plaintiffs argued, by the mandate found in § 16-22-13.5(a)(2) that, in providing for a 7% pay increase for education employees for the 2007-2008 fiscal year, "[e]ach governing body or authority shall establish and maintain a salary schedule for each class and type of employee and each step of each salary schedule shall be increased to reflect" that pay increase. We note that that same provision is also set forth in §§ 16-22-13 to -13.4, each of which provides a pay increase for education employees for different fiscal years. The plaintiffs also contended that the defendants' determination to provide a salary schedule with steps based on longevity for some employees while denying the same to support personnel was arbitrary.

The defendants, in support of their summary-judgment motion, contended that the statutes the plaintiffs referenced did not require them to create the type of salary schedule the plaintiffs sought. They argued that, although statutes providing legislatively mandated pay increases provided that certificated employees, such as teachers, were to be placed on salary schedules "according to degree earned and length of public education experience," § 16-22-13.5(a)(1), there was no such requirement for noncertificated employees such as support personnel. The defendants argued that such legislative silence with regard to longevity pay for noncertificated employees demonstrated the legislature's intent not to require longevity pay for those employees. With regard to the plaintiffs' reliance on the reference in § 16-22-13.5(a)(2) to "each step of each salary schedule" for noncertificated employees, the defendants argued that that reference represented, "[a]t most, ... recognition that salary schedules can contain more than one step," not that such steps were required in establishing salary schedules for support personnel.

On September 12, 2008, following a hearing on the cross-motions for a summary judgment, the trial court entered an order granting the plaintiffs' motion anddenying the defendants' motion. In pertinent part, the order read:

"1. Code of Alabama Section 16-22-10(f), 1975, provides that 'each ... county board of education shall establish and maintain a written schedule for each class and type of employee.'
"2. The Defendants have defined 'salary schedule' to be a document that includes steps for longevity for certain support personnel, but as a written document with one salary amount and no longevity steps for others.
"3. The Defendants are hereby estopped from using a different definition of 'salary schedule' for different jobs within the general category of support personnel.
"4. The Defendants must apply the same definition to all support personnel, and therefore establish a step system for all.
"Counsel shall provide the court with proposed orders in accordance with these findings which are necessary for the implementation of the court's order."

On October 3, 2008, the trial court entered a final judgment that read:

"The Court having found by separate Order, dated September 12, 2008, that the salary schedule with no step system used by the Washington County Board of Education does not comply with the requirements of Code of Alabama § 16-22-10(f), it is hereby further ordered as follows:
"1. The Defendants ... shall establish and maintain for all employees a salary schedule that includes a step system which provides for increases in salary based upon the employee's length of service, specifically for the following job classifications within the general category of support/classified personnel:
"(a) Teacher Aide;
"(b) Bus Driver;
"(c) Teacher Aide/Bus Driver (Dual Position);
"(d) Vocational Technical Bus Driver;
"(e) Maids and Janitors (Custodians);
"(f) Maids and Janitors/Bus Drivers (Dual Positions);
"(g) Computer Technicians;
"(h) Computer Aide; and,
"(i) Any job classification which does not currently exist, but which may be created in the future and which is not a certified position[.]
"2. Prior to January 2009, the Board [3] shall meet and confer with the Washington County Education Association, the local employees' professional organization, as required by Code of Alabama § 16-1-30, for the purpose of establishing and implementing salary schedules for the job classifications listed in Paragraph 1 herein; and,
"3. The Board [4] shall submit to the Court, no later than March 1, 2009, written salary schedules for the job classifications listed in Paragraph 1 herein for the Court's review to ensure compliance with the Orders of this Court and implementation of the salary schedules, to be effective for the next employment contract year."

The defendants filed a timely appeal to the supreme court. That court determinedthat the appeal fell within this court's appellate jurisdiction and, accordingly, transferred the appeal to this court.

The parties do not dispute the facts relevant to this appeal. "It is well established that this Court reviews a summary judgment de novo.... Moreover, '[w]here the facts are not in dispute and we are presented with a pure question of law, as here, this Court's review is de novo.' " Ex parte Hoover, Inc., 956 So.2d 1149, 1152-53 (Ala.2006) (quoting Christian v. Murray, 915 So.2d 23, 25 (Ala.2005)).

On appeal, the defendants make three primary contentions. They contend that the trial court's order that they were to establish salary schedules for support personnel that included step raises for longevity was improperly based on the equitable defense of estoppel. They also contend that Alabama law does not require the implementation of the salary schedules mandated by the trial court. Finally, they contend that the plaintiffs' action was barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. We address each of those contentions in turn.

The defendants argue that the trial court erred when, in its order of September 12, 2008, granting the plaintiffs' summary-judgment motion and denying their summary-judgment motion, the trial court held that the defendants were "estopped" from applying different definitions of "salary schedule" to different categories of employees. They argue...

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