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Students First Act - Common-Law Writ of Certiorari

Wilkinson v. Cochran, [Ms. 2180741, Jan. 31, 2020] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. Civ. App. 2020). In a 3-2 decision (Thompson, P.J., and Donaldson and Hanson, JJ., concur; Moore and Edwards, JJ., dissent) reverses the Etowah Circuit Court’s judgment dismissing an action filed by Roger Wilkinson, a former principal of Gadsden Elementary School who was suspended from his position for twenty days without pay for making a politically-charged Facebook post. Under the Students First Act (“SFA”), upon the written recommendation of the Chief Executive Officer and the approval of the governing board, a tenured employee can be suspended for up to twenty days without pay. Ms. *10. The SFA further provides that a suspension for no more than twenty days “is not a termination of employment, subject to [judicial] review....” Ms. *11, quoting § 16-24C-6(I), Ala. Code 1975.

While acknowledging that the complaint was not a model of clarity, the court noted that “it has long been the law that substance, not nomenclature, is the determining factor regarding the nature of a party’s pleadings or motions. The substance of Wilkinson’s complaint is that he disputed the board members’ determination, and he sought to have that determination set aside and the discipline imposed somehow expunged.” Ms. *19 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

The court held that Wilkinson’s sole remedy was a common-law writ of certiorari and that “[i]n exploring and ultimately deciding the question of immunity, it is apparent that the trial court did not limit its role to deciding questions touching on the board’s jurisdiction ... or the legality of its proceedings.” Ms. *21. The court reversed and remanded to the trial court “to determine the extent, if any, that Wilkinson’s complaint raised matters that can be properly considered appropriate for certiorari review and to proceed accordingly.” Ibid.

The dissenters reasoned that because Wilkinson “seeks mandamus and injunctive relief, his complaint states claims different from a petition for the common-law writ of certiorari,” Ms. *35, and “consequently the court should address the merits of Wilkinson’s appeal of the circuit court’s judgment that his action was barred by sovereign immunity.” Ms. *37.

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