County Contracting Authority - Constitutional Avoidance


Robbins v. Cleburne County Commission, [Ms. 1180106, Jan. 31, 2020] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2020). The Court (Mitchell, J.; Parker, C.J., and Bolin, Bryan, Mendheim, and Stewart, JJ., concur; Shaw, J., concurs in the result; and Sellers, J., dissents) affirms the Cleburne Circuit Court’s order dismissing a breach of contract action filed by the former county engineer after the County Commission denied the validity of a renewal option in his employment agreement.

Home rule is not extended to counties. Consequently, a county commission’s “‘contracting authority extends only so far as is authorized by the legislature ....’” Ms. *5, quoting Cooper v. Houston Cty., 40 Ala. App. 192, 195, 112 So. 2d 496, 498 (1959). Two statutes potentially authorized the contract – a general law providing that a county may enter into an employment contract with a county engineer “for a period of time not to exceed five years,’” Ms. *5, and a local law, authorizing Cleburne County to hire a “county engineer who shall serve at the pleasure of the County Commission.” Ms. *6.

In approving a contract with the county engineer for a period of five years with a one-year renewal option, the county exceeded its authority under either law. Ms. *6. The general law expressly limited a contract of employment of a county engineer to five years. The local law authorized at-will employment of a county engineer, leading the Court to hold that “[a] government body authorized to fill a position on an at-will basis may not contract away its power of removal.” Ms. *10.

Citing its “duty to avoid constitutional questions unless essential for the proper disposition of the case,” Ms. *6, quoting Chisholm v. Jefferson Cty., 954 So. 2d 1058, 1063 (Ala. 2006)(internal quotation marks omitted), the Court declined to decide whether the general or local law applied.

Related Documents

Share To: