Alabama School Boards Lose Bids for Immunity

     (CN) – Two Alabama school boards cannot claim a constitutional right to immunity to defend themselves in separate employment actions, the 11th Circuit ruled.
     The ruling related to lawsuits filed against the Jefferson County and Madison City boards of education which were consolidated on appeal.
     The first case, Walker, et al., v. Jefferson County Board of Education, concerned the calculation of employee wages.
     The plaintiffs, who were 240-day employees, claimed that their overtime rates were determined by “dividing their annual salaries by 260 days,” in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The district court dismissed the case, ruling that that the board was entitled to immunity. The plaintiff employees appealed.
     In the second case, Weaver v. Madison City Board of Education, the plaintiff sued the board of education after it “refused to reinstate him to his prior position” following a two-year tour of duty in Afghanistan, claiming it had violated the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.
     In this instance, the district court chose not to dismiss the case, and it was the defendant board that decided to appeal.
     The defendants in both cases asked the three-judge panel to recede from its earlier opinion in Stewart v. Baldwin County Board of Education, “which held that school boards in Alabama are not arms of the state and therefore not entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity.”
     The boards argued that the 1990 decision was “no longer good law” and that they should be entitled to immunity.
     The court concluded, however, “that the Eleventh Amendment ruling in Stewart has not been overruled or abrogated, and therefore remains binding precedent.”
     The Stewart case involved a former employee who was fired for “exercising his First Amendment rights.” On appeal of the case, the school board argued that it was entitled to “absolute immunity under the Eleventh Amendment.”
     Using a three-factor test that included how state law defines the entity, its degree of control over the entity and its fiscal autonomy, the court ruled that the school board could not successfully assert 11th Amendment immunity.
     In the current case, the boards argued that Alabama law has changed in terms of how school boards are characterized. The panel, however, found that “at the time we decided Stewart, Alabama courts had already held that school boards were state entities entitled to sovereign immunity from tort suits based on state law.”
     It further stated: “Although we recognized that principle of state sovereign immunity law in Stewart, we did not find it determinative.”
     Reasserting its ruling in the Stewart case, the 11th Circuit reversed the lower court’s dismissal in the Walker case and affirmed the motion to dismiss in the Weaver case.

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