GALBREATH V. HALE COUNTY, ALABAMA COMMISSION
No. 17-13762, Decided October 31, 2018
In 2004, Ms. Galbreath was hired by Hale County to serve as the county administrator, and served in that position until her termination in 2013. At the start of her employment, she was given a copy of the County’s personnel policy, which was placed in her personnel file. This policy included a four step grievance/dispute resolution procedure and a multi-level disciplinary procedure. After an election resulted in new officials being placed in charge of the Hale County Commission, the Commission issued a disciplinary action statement against Ms. Galbreath on the basis of numerous complaints against her, and moved to terminate her employment with Hale County in the same meeting. Notably, Ms. Galbreath had an employment contract with the County until November of 2018.
In the underlying suit before the District Court, five of the eight claims raised by Ms. Galbreath were disposed of through motion practice, including summary judgment. With respect to the claims that survived, a jury found in favor of Ms. Galbreath and awarded $361,757.37, inclusive of attorney’s fees and costs. The County appealed the following: (1) a claim that Ms. Galbreath’s due process rights were violated, (2) a breach of contract claim, and (3) a state-law wrongful termination claim. On appeal, the County alleged that Ms. Galbreath did not have a property interest in her employment, received sufficient due process, and could have sought state court remedies to correct any errors.
The Eleventh Circuit found that the language of the employee handbook created a unilateral contract, that by continuing her employment Ms. Galbreath had accepted the terms of the contract and that this contractual right created a property interest in her employment with the County. After finding the existence of a property interest in her employment under Alabama law, that Court then turned to whether Ms. Galbreath was afforded due process by the County. In this analysis, the Court noted that her position was placed on the agenda, and during the meeting she received the notice of disciplinary action against her and was terminated. Relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, the Eleventh Circuit found that the County had not provided Ms. Galbreath with sufficient notice of the charges against them and the opportunity to present her side of the facts. Because both the charges and the termination were carried out contemporaneously, the court held Ms. Galbreath was not given a meaningful opportunity to rebut the charges, and was therefore denied due process.
Next, the Court addressed the availability of redress in the state courts. Analyzing the interactions of the case of McKinney v. Pate and Loudermill, the court found that the procedural due process required by Loudermill must occur in order for a state court hearing to bar claims raised in federal court. In McKinney, the Eleventh Circuit found that a three day pre-termination conference prior to the termination of a public employee met the Loudermill standard, and that any procedural defects could have been raised before a state court, which would have cured those defects, having not exhausted the redress available under the state courts, the Plaintiff in McKinney could not sustain a claim of adue process violation. In the instant matter, as the Court had determined that Ms. Galbreath had been summarily denied due process, McKinney could not serve to require Ms Galbreath to first seek a remedy in state court.
Finally, the Court affirmed the award reached by the District Court and rejected the County’s remaining arguments regarding the Alabama law, whether there was sufficient evidence to support the damages awarded to Ms. Galbreath, and the attorney’s fees awarded to her under 42 U.S.C. § 1988.