State-Agent Immunity – Tort of Outrage

Avendano and Knowles v. Shaw, [Ms. 1210125, Aug. 19, 2022] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2022). In a plurality opinion (Mitchell, J.; Parker, C.J., concurs; Shaw, Bryan, and Mendheim, JJ., concur in the result), the Court affirms in part and reverses in part the Dale Circuit Court’s 12(b)(6) dismissal of claims asserted by Angel Avendano and Sandy Knowles against Victoria Shaw, a social worker employed by the Dale County Department of Human Resources (“DHR”). Avendano, whose children were in foster care, exercised visitation with the children and Knowles, his employer, was a caretaker of the children. Avendano and Knowles were subject to mandatory drug tests ordered by DHR and performed by Brandy Murrah, the former owner of a drug-screening laboratory currently in prison for falsifying test results. Avendano and Knowles alleged “that their drug tests were among the many tests that Murrah had falsified, and they further claim that Shaw knew about and willfully participated in Murrah’s illegal conduct.” Ms. *4.

As to the dismissal of Avendano’s and Knowles’s official-capacity claim against Shaw seeking to compel her to remove any mention of the drug tests from State records, the opinion notes that “Shaw … argues that Avendano and Knowles have not identified any cause of action that would authorize the injunctive relief demanded in Count IV (namely, an order requiring Shaw to correct State records). Avendano and Knowles do not address this argument in either their opening brief or their reply brief and, thus, have failed to meet their burden of demonstrating that the trial court erred.” Ms. *9.

Dismissal at the pleading stage based on state-agent immunity is only appropriate in rare instances where the defense appears from the face of the complaint. Ms. *11. The opinion accordingly notes that “the complaint alleges that Shaw worked closely with Murrah, personally directed Murrah in the performance of her job duties, was physically present while Murrah performed the drug tests on Avendano and Knowles, and ignored independent lab results showing that Murrah’s tests were inaccurate. Nothing about these allegations affirmatively rules out the possibility that Shaw acted maliciously, fraudulently, in bad faith, beyond her authority, or under a mistaken interpretation of the law.” Ms. **11-12.

The opinion also concludes the complaint clears the “high hurdle” for stating a claim for outrage, because it “alleges that Shaw: (1) “intentional[ly] and malicious[ly]” colluded with Murrah (2) to fabricate positive drug-test results and to use those fabricated results to falsely smear Avendano and Knowles as drug addicts unfit to be around children, and that (3) this conduct caused severe and unbearable emotional distress by stripping Avendano and Knowles of their parental and caretaking rights, respectively, and by clouding their reputations within their community.” Ms. *14.

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