Alabama Union Tries to Wiggle Out of Paying Member’s Attorney Fees

The Ala. Educ. Ass’n which had refused to represent a union member in her claim against her employer must honor its offer to pay her reasonable attorneys’ fees, the full Ala. Ct. of Civ. Appeals held Nov. 12. The court remanded plaintiff Carmen Black’s breach of contract claim against AEA to the trial court for a determination of “reasonable” fees, finding that the trial court erred in ruling that AEA was liable for Black’s attorneys’ fees whether or not they were reasonable. However, the court rejected AEA’s argument that Black’s suit was barred by a settlement agreement between her and the Birmingham Bd. of Educ.

Reportedly, Black was a non-tenured teacher represented by AEA. In Jun. 1991, the school board notified her that it was not going to renew her contract. Black contacted AEA and asked it to provide her with an attorney to represent her in a lawsuit against the board. On Jun. 11, 1991, Dr. Joe Reed, AEA’s associate executive secretary, wrote Black a letter denying her request. Because she was a probationary employee, the letter stated, the school board could “nonrenew” her contract without giving her a reason, and unless she could show some constitutionally impermissible reason for the board’s action, there was no legal recourse. The letter also stated that “[I]f you decide to pursue your case and employ private counsel and are successful in being reinstated in a court of law, AEA will reimburse you for legal fees, not to exceed $60 an hour, plus court costs.” Black contacted Reed after receiving the letter, asking him to reconsider, but he again refused, stating that her case “cannot be won in a court of law.”

Black then hired attorney David Sullivan and sued the board. In February 1996, Black settled her claim against the board, receiving tenure, credit for sick days for four years, retirement credit, and $100,000 for mental anguish. The board also agreed to reimburse her $2,336 for litigation expenses and up to $500 in court costs. On Mar. 20, 1996, Sullivan submitted an itemized statement of his hourly charges and expenses to AEA, indicating that he had spent 224.2 hours in litigating Black’s case, and requesting that AEA pay Black $15,981. Reed told Black that some of the hours submitted by Sullivan were excessive and that she would be paid “reasonable and customary” attorneys’ fees after AEA performed an audit. On Aug. 22, 1996, Reed sent Black $11,985, stating that anything more would be excessive, the court said.

Black sued the union for breach of contract. The trial court granted Black’s motion for a judgment as a matter of law, and awarded Black $5,493, which included the unpaid balance of the charges submitted by Sullivan to AEA, plus interest. AEA appealed. The appeals court stated that an agreement to pay attorneys’ fees does not speak specifically to the reasonableness of the fee, a “reasonable” fee is inferred.

However, the appeals court rejected AEA’s argument that the settlement-and-release agreement between Black and the board barred Black’s lawsuit against the union. The settlement agreement provided that Black release the board and “any other entities” from all claims arising from Black’s employment, or efforts to gain employment, with the board. Under Ala. law, a party claiming to be an unnamed third party mentioned in such a release has the burden of proving that it was the party intended to be released by the named parties to the agreement. “The AEA failed to present substantial evidence indicating that the parties intended to release it. It is clear from the evidence that neither the AEA nor any claim against the AEA was within the contemplation of the parties at the time the release was executed between Black and the Board,” the court held. [BNA 11/17/99]