AEA pleased with court decision for CCS employees case to proceed

Published 12:25 pm Friday, February 10, 2023

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By JOYANNA LOVE |Managing Editor

The Alabama Education Association held a press conference on Feb. 10 to give comments on the recent Alabama Supreme Court decision that former Chilton County Schools Superintendent Jason Griffin can be sued, and does not have immunity, related to letters sent to employees about paying back overpaid wages.

“It is a very big victory for our clients, and we are very pleased with the courts order from below with Judge (Sibley) Reynolds and as from the Alabama Supreme Court,” Attorney Candace McGowen of Wiggins, Childs, Pantazis, Fisher and Goldfarb said.

Christie Payne, a Verbena High School lunchroom manager, and Shellie Smith, a LeCroy Career Technical Center nursing instructor, filed suit in May 2022 after each received a letter stating that they had been paid for years of service when moving to their new position, rather than starting at year one of the new position.

“We felt like the Alabama Supreme Court, … the same way Judge Reynolds did in the Chilton County Circuit Court, … recognized that there has been a wrong done and that the plaintiffs should have the right to go to court to pursue legal action,” Theron Stokes, associate executive director of the Alabama Education Association, said. “This has been an interesting case because it is ironic that the Chilton County school board is punishing the plaintiffs for doing a great job … They are the backbone of why this school system functions, and the way that they are being treated we feel is just an injustice to the employees.”

The lawsuit is against Griffin and not the Chilton County Board of Education because there was never a board vote on the record to send the letters.

Griffin’s legal team has stated that the letters were in line with school board policy and state law calling for repayment of overpaid wages.

Stokes said the lawsuit was about more than just helping the plaintiffs, but was for all employees.

“It is time for this school system to recognize the wrong that it is doing,” Stokes said.

Stokes said the school system has had “significant problems” related to finances and financial reporting issues in the past, and this is just one of them.

He said the AEA legal team will now be gathering documentation for this case and depositions from the Board of Education members as the case enters the discovery phase. He described the actions regarding the case a “conspiracy to mistreat Ms. Payne and Ms. Smith.” However, the plaintiffs have not provided any information to AEA on who would be behind these actions, he said.

McGowen said the employees were “hanging in (there) because they care about the students, but it has been hard on them and we are hoping that there won’t be any more retaliation against them.”

McGowen said there had been some retaliation, but she could not give specific details.

Payne and Smith were absent from the event.

According to court documents, Payne was told she owes $23,465.40 stemming from a position change in 2016, and Smith was told she owes $32,948 stemming from a position change in 2018. Stokes said during the press conference that the amount included “a ridiculous amount of interest.”

A court order has kept the school system from withdrawing payment on this request while the lawsuit is pending.