The school payroll dispute creeps up to the Alabama Supreme Court

CHILTON COUNTY, Ala. (WIAT) – Last month, an Alabama school principal lost in court to his employees. Now he’s asking the state’s highest court to intervene.

Chilton County Schools Superintendent Jason Griffin has filed a petition with the Alabama Supreme Court asking the state’s highest judiciary to order a local judge to dismiss a lawsuit against him. The judge ruled against Griffin last month, allowing the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed by two school system employees, alleges Griffin illegally demanded that employees pay the system thousands of dollars to correct previous payroll errors.

Christie Payne, a Verbena High School cafeteria manager represented in the lawsuit, was told that she owed $23,465.40 from the 2016-17 school year.

Shellie Smith, wife of school board member Chris Smith, is the other employee represented in the lawsuit. She said opening the letter from the school system demanding payments was “disgusting.” The letter, sent to Smith and signed by the superintendent, asked the 19-year-old employee to repay over $33,000. They claimed she was overcompensated due to repeated payroll errors.

In October, a Chilton County judge debated whether to grant Griffin’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The superintendent had argued he was immune from the suit 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 concluded, Judge Sibley Reynolds ruled that the sovereign immunity statute does not require the employees’ lawsuit to be dismissed.

Now, Griffin has filed a petition with the Alabama Supreme Court asking judges to order Judge Sibley to dismiss the case.

“The allegations by Christy Payne (sic) and Shellie Smith against Chilton County Board of Education Superintendent Jason Griffin in his official capacity are absolutely barred by sovereign immunity,” Griffin’s petition reads.

While Payne and Smith are the only employees named in the lawsuit, CBS 42 has spoken to others who have received similar letters from the school system. One of them, a bus driver who has worked for the district for nearly two decades, said he has no plans to pay the money or respond to the district in any way.

Another employee, Frances Allison, said she had already returned the money because she was afraid of what might happen if she refused.

“I didn’t want the police to take anything to my work or home,” Allison said. So she agreed: she would pay.

Allison believes that the school system should return the money garnished from her paychecks to correct the school system’s mistake, adding that it is 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 hard-working employees.

“It’s not right what was done,” Allison said. “It wasn’t our fault.”

CBS 42 reached out to Smith and Payne’s legal team about Griffin’s efforts to bring the case to the state Supreme Court. We hadn’t heard anything as of Tuesday afternoon.