Collateral Estoppel – State-Agent Immunity


Harris v. Hicks, et al., [Ms. 1200717, Aug. 19, 2022] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2022). The Court (Sellers, J.; Parker, C.J., and Bolin, Wise, and Stewart, JJ., concur) reverses in part the Montgomery Circuit Court’s 12(b)(6) dismissal on grounds of state-agent immunity of claims asserted by Ashley Page Harris, a student in the nurse anesthesia program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Nursing School (“the nursing school”). Harris asserted claims against three nurses at Baptist South Hospital (“the hospital”) tasked with evaluating her clinical work at the hospital. Harris also sued a supervisor and four educators and administrators at the nursing school who were involved in the process that resulted in her dismissal from the nursing school. Harris purported to state individual-capacity claims against each of the defendants.

In a previous action, Harris sued defendants McMullan, Tofani, and Hicks, asserting the same alleged misconduct she asserts in the present case. That previous action was dismissed by the federal district court on principles of federal qualified immunity. Ms. *7. The Court affirms the dismissal of the claims against Defendants Tofani, McMullan and Woodfin based on collateral estoppel. “Consideration of a qualified-immunity defense requires an initial analysis of whether a government official was acting within the scope of his or her discretionary authority when the allegedly wrongful acts occurred. Ms. **7-8. The Court explains that

The trial court’s reliance on Roden [v. Wright, 646 So. 2d 605, 609-11 (Ala. 1994)] suggests that the court reasoned that, in Harris’s previous action, the federal court’s analysis and conclusion regarding federal qualified immunity encompassed all the requirements necessary to make Tofani, Hicks, and McMullan immune under principles of State-agent immunity. As the appellant, Harris has the burden on appeal. Johnson v. Life Ins. Co. of Alabama, 581 So. 2d 438, 444 (Ala. 1991) (“An appellant has the burden of showing that a trial court has committed error ....”). In her briefs to this court, Harris ignores the trial court’s apparent rationale based on Roden. Thus, she has not demonstrated that the trial court erred in concluding that Harris is precluded from arguing that Tofani, Hicks, and McMullan are entitled to State-agent immunity.

Ms. *10.

The Court reverses the dismissal of Harris’s claims against the defendants who were not parties to the prior action because “‘in pleading a claim against a State agent, a plaintiff’s initial burden is merely to state a cause of action against the defendant. The plaintiff need not anticipate a State-agent-immunity defense by pleading with particularity a Cranman exception. Therefore, unless the inapplicability of all the Cranman exceptions is clear from the face of the complaint, a motion to dismiss based on State-agent immunity must be denied.’” Ms. *13, quoting Odom v. Helms, 314 So. 3d 220, 229 n.3 (Ala. 2020).

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