|Tamara Harris Johnson|
How did Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tamara Harris Johnson run off the rails in dismissing a $75-million lawsuit against the Balch Bingham law firm?
Former Drummond executive David Roberson and his wife, Anna, allege that he relied on false or incomplete information from two lawyers -- Joel Gilbert, of Balch, and Blake Andrews, in-house counsel for Drummond -- essentially making him the fall guy and leading to his conviction in the North Birmingham Superfund bribery scandal. As a result, David Roberson lost his job, and the Robersons lost their house and many of their possessions. The Roberson conviction currently is under appeal.
In the civil matter, Johnson granted a Motion to Dismiss -- also known as a Rule 12(b)(6) motion -- from Balch, finding the Robersons failed to state a claim for which relief can be granted. Johnson's reasoning, however, is flawed, and her order should be overturned on appeal. A Notice of Appeal already has been filed with the Alabama Supreme Court. (Johnson has yet to rule on a similar motion from Drummond.)
Alabama law on determining whether a Motion to Dismiss should be granted is straightforward and well settled, so it's hard to see how Johnson got it wrong. But a case styled Ex parte Austal USA (2017) shows that she did get it wrong.
In Austal, several employees were injured while using a "Miller saw," and they alleged that Austal intentionally injured them, asserting a claim for fraud and stating, "Austal “intentionally made false statements regarding the safety of the Miller Saw” and that those statements were made “with the conscious and deliberate intent to injure its workmen, including plaintiffs, with the Miller Saw so that it could build its ships without having to incur the costs associated with finding a safer alternative method to perform the work. . . .” Austal fraudulently “suppressed, concealed, hid or withheld important facts from the Plaintiffs regarding the known safety hazards associated with the Miller Saw ․ and that Austal knew the tool was unsafe and had made the conscious and deliberate decision to intentionally injure its workmen with the tool so that it could build its ships without having to incur the costs associated with finding a safer alternative method to perform the work.”
Austal labeled the allegations "conclusory" and claimed the injuries were accidental, the kind for which the company was immune from tort liability. The trial court denied Austal's Motion to Dismiss, and the Alabma Supreme Court denied the company's petition for mandamus review.
The factual allegations in Austal, particularly those involving reliance on false statements, are similar to those in the Roberson case. The Supreme Court's reasoning on denial of a Motion for Dismiss also is instructive for Roberson:
Austal urges this Court to look only to the specific factual allegations pleaded in the plaintiffs' complaint concerning how the injuries occurred and the alleged business motivations Austal had for requiring the plaintiffs to work with a dangerous tool. Those allegations, Austal contends, describe precisely the type of workplace accidental injuries for which it is immune from tort liability. . . .
At the motion-to-dismiss stage, however, a court's ability to pick and choose which allegations of the complaint to accept as true is constrained by Alabama's broad and well settled standard for the dismissal of claims under Rule 12(b)(6). In this case, there is no question that the plaintiffs have pleaded that Austal “made the conscious and deliberate decision to intentionally injure its workmen.” That allegation -- that a company would deliberately injure multiple specific employees -- is so shocking that it invites skepticism. Moreover, we agree with Austal that a specific intent or desire to cause injury to its employees is not particularly consistent with the alleged cost-saving motivation for causing such injuries. Nevertheless, our standard of review does not permit this Court to consider the plausibility of the allegations. Rather, in considering whether a complaint is sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss, we must take the allegations of the complaint as true, Ussery v. Terry, 201 So. 3d 544, 546 (Ala. 2016); we do not consider “'whether the pleader will ultimately prevail but whether the pleader may possibly prevail,”' Daniel v. Moye, [Ms. 1140819, November 10, 2016] ___ So. 3d ___, ___ (Ala. 2016) (quoting Newman v. Savas, 878 So. 2d 1147, 1149 (Ala. 2003) (emphasis added)); and “[w]e construe all doubts regarding the sufficiency of the complaint in favor of the plaintiff.” Daniel, ___ So. 3d at ___. Furthermore, a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal is proper “'only when it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of the claim that would entitle the plaintiff to relief.”' Knox v. Western World Ins. Co., 893 So. 2d 321, 322 (Ala. 2004) (quoting Nance v. Matthews, 622 So. 2d 297, 299 (Ala. 1993)).
In this case, regardless of our view on the likelihood of the plaintiffs' ultimate ability to establish the truth of the intent-to-injure allegations, or even to survive the summary-judgment stage, we cannot deny that there is at least some possibility that those allegations are true. Accordingly, the plaintiffs are entitled to at least limited discovery on the issue whether their claims are subject to the exclusivity provision of the LHWCA.5 Thus, Austal has not shown a clear legal right to a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal.
By law, the Roberson's allegations, at the moion-to-dismiss stage, must be treated in the same fashion -- that there is at least some possibility that their allegations are true, and they are entitled to discovery in an effort to prove them. So far, that has not happened in Judge Johnson's court.