CHILTON COUNTY, Ala. (WIAT) — The Alabama Supreme Court has unanimously rejected an effort by former Chilton County Schools Superintendent Jason Griffin to dismiss a lawsuit filed against him by two system employees.
The lawsuit, filed by two school system employees, claims Griffin illegally demanded that the employees pay the system thousands of dollars to correct past payroll errors.
Corey Clements replaced Jason Griffin as superintendent in January following a November election. It is unclear whether Clements’ position on the situation is different than his predecessor’s.
A Chilton County judge had already rejected a motion to dismiss the suit filed by Griffin. The Wednesday order of the state’s highest court ensures the lawsuit will move forward in the coming months.
Christie Payne, a lunchroom manager at Verbena High School represented in the lawsuit, was told she owed $23,465.40 dating back to the 2016-17 school year.
Shellie Smith, wife of school board member Chris Smith, is the other employee represented in the suit. She said that opening the letter from the school system demanding payments was “sickening.” The letter sent to Smith and signed by the superintendent demanded that the 19-year employee repay over $33,000 they claimed she was overcompensated as a result of repeated payroll errors.
In October, a Chilton County judge considered whether to grant a request by Griffin to dismiss the suit. The superintendent had argued he was immune from the lawsuit under a legal doctrine called sovereign immunity which limits claims against the state. In an order issued less than an hour after a hearing on the matter ended, Judge Sibley Reynolds ruled sovereign immunity law did not require that the employees’ lawsuit be dismissed.
Griffin’s petition to the Alabama Supreme Court asked the justices to order Judge Sibley to dismiss the case.
“Christy Payne (sic) and Shellie Smith’s claims made against Jason Griffin, the Superintendent of Chilton County Board of Education, in his official capacity are absolutely barred by sovereign immunity,” Griffin’s petition said.
Wednesday’s order unanimously rejected that petition.
The Alabama Education Association, a professional association that represents teachers and other school employees and provided legal counsel to Smith and Payne in the case, said Thursday that they are also considering options related to others who received demand letters from the school system.
While Payne and Smith are the only employees named in the lawsuit, CBS 42 has spoken to others who received similar letters from the school system. One of them, a bus driver who’s worked for the district for nearly two decades, said he doesn’t plan to pay the money or respond to the district in any way.
Another employee, Frances Allison, said she had already paid the money back because she was afraid of what might happen if she refused.
“I didn’t want the police to bring anything to my job or house,” Allison said. So she agreed: she’d pay up.
Allison believes the school system should return the money that was garnished from her paychecks to correct the school system’s mistake, adding it’s the right thing to do.
Allison, who retired in June, said she wants Griffin to understand that his actions have made life unnecessarily difficult for many hardworking employees.
“It is not right, what’s been done,” Allison said. “It was not our fault.”
Chilton County Schools did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday evening.