It feels good to win! And, if you operate an employment law blog and win, you should be able to talk about the case. So, that’s what I’m doing here. My client, the Cleburne County Commission, recently won a decision from the Alabama Supreme Court in a dispute with its former County Engineer. See Robbins v. Cleburne County Commission, No. 1180106, 2020 WL 502541 (Ala. Jan. 31, 2020).
Shannon Robbins was the Cleburne County Engineer. He signed an employment contract with the Cleburne County Commission for the five-year period of February 1, 2011 to January 31, 2016. The contract also contained an option provision by which Mr. Robbins could extend the contract to a sixth-year if he provided at least 60 days notice of his desire to extend. On October 13, 2015, Mr. Robbins attempted to exercise that sixth-year option. But, the County Commission claimed that the option was not valid and terminated his employment effective January 31, 2016.
Mr. Robbins sued the Commission for breach of contract and I was retained to represent the Commission. In the trial court, I moved to dismiss the complaint because Alabama’s general law for County Engineers provides that counties can only contract with engineers for five-year terms, and Mr. Robbins’ option created an invalid six-year contract. See Ala. Code § 11-6-1. Mr. Robbins countered that the Alabama Legislature passed a special statute for the Cleburne County Engineer under which the engineer must be employed “at the pleasure” of the Commission. See Ala. Code § 45-15-130.01. He argued that the County’s “pleasure” was to employ him for six years.
I was able to convince the trial court that the phrase “at the pleasure” actually meant that Mr. Robbins must be an “at will” employee. As a result, any written contract for a specific term violated the statutory mandate that Mr. Robbins be employed “at will.” After the trial court granted my motion to dismiss, Mr. Robbins appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court.
The Alabama Supreme Court ordered the parties to appear for oral argument in Montgomery on December 4, 2019. During that argument, some of the Justices appeared concerned that Cleburne County’s local statute might be an invalid, unconstitutional variance from Alabama’s general statute on County Engineers. I argued that, regardless of the constitutionality of the local act, my client should win. If the local act was unconstitutional, then Alabama’s general five-year limit on engineer contracts controlled and Mr. Robbins’ lawsuit for a sixth-year was impermissible. If the local act was valid, then the phrase “at the pleasure” required “at will” employment — invalidating the contract and the breach of contract lawsuit.
In its decision, the Supreme Court effectively adopted that argument. Instead of ruling on the constitutionality of the local act, the Court found that the Cleburne County Commission was entitled to prevail under either statute.
The Robbins case is also important for two reasons. First, Alabama’s appellate courts had not previously ruled that an option-year for a contract would be considered an extra year for purposes of statutes limiting the length of government contracts. There were several opinions from the Alabama Attorney General supporting that proposition. But, Robbins clearly holds that an option year is an impermissible extension. Second, the Court clearly found that the phrase “at the pleasure” mandates “at will” employment. I relied upon an older case from the Alabama Court of Appeals and more-recent cases from other states to support that proposition. The Robbins case is the first decision from the Alabama Supreme Court on the issue.
Now that I’ve celebrated, it’s time to get back to representing other clients.