Probate judge claims chief clerk not under civil service

Tucker goes to court on Howard firing

By ED HOWELL
Posted 5/12/19

Walker County Probate Judge A. Lee Tucker filed for declaratory judgement last month to dismiss Angela Howard of Sumiton as his chief clerk, saying the position remains outside civil …

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Probate judge claims chief clerk not under civil service

Tucker goes to court on Howard firing

Posted

Walker County Probate Judge A. Lee Tucker filed for declaratory judgement last month to dismiss Angela Howard of Sumiton as his chief clerk, saying the position remains outside civil service. 

Filings in the case, found on Alacourt, the state's online system for court filings,  also show Tucker sent a letter on April 8 that gives reasons for termination and notes the letter date could also be viewed as a termination date - an apparent secondary move to address concerns raised earlier by the Walker County Civil Service Board. 

Alacourt lists Circuit Judge Doug Farris as having been assigned to the case.  

A month ago, on April 2, the Walker County Civil Service Board returned Howard to her position in the Probate Judge's Office. Tucker fired Howard in January after he took office, and Howard then appealed the termination to the Civil Service Board. 

At the request of the board, the state Attorney General's Office was asked if the Probate Judge's Office was exempt from the board's rules for hiring or firing, which the office made an opinion it was not. The board on April 2 that the notice of termination did not contain a reason for the termination, and thus the board decided the January termination had no effect and that Howard could return to work. 

In an April 18 filing, Tucker asked for a declaratory judgement to say that the chief clerk position is not covered by the Walker County Civil Service Board Act. Tucker v. Howard was filed by attorneys Charlie Stephens and Ken Guin on behalf of Tucker. 

It was not clear how to reach Howard for comment, nor was an attorney listed for her in court records. Tucker said last week he would not comment on the matter. 

The suit notes Howard was appointed by former Probate Judge Rick Allison as chief clerk on Jan. 7, 2015. It stated Tucker notified Walker County Administrator Robbie Dickerson on Jan. 22 that Tucker was hiring Jerome P. "Jerry" Davis as chief clerk and that Howard would not longer serve in that position. The suit notes Davis was sworn in on Jan. 30, and that Howard has not reported to work since the April 2 board action. 

Davis was seen working in the chief clerk's office on Thursday. 

The suit notes Tucker verbally informed Howard on Jan. 22 she would no longer serve in the position. An attached document in the filing - one of  a number - shows Howard wrote him back that day requesting a hearing and saying Tucker violated civil service rules by not noting her of action in advance. Tucker replied by mail Jan. 30 that Howard's position was exempt from the county's civil service rules, meaning her last day was Jan. 22.

The suit said, "Howard was aware on Jan. 22 that her position was appointed, which is evidenced by an employment application found in her former office, wherein she wrote, 'My position is appointed. Judge Allison is retiring. The new judge does not have to keep me when he takes office in January.'" The application was attached to the court filing, with the words handwritten in a box labeled "reason for leaving." It is not clear when the wording was written. 

In the filing, it said the local 2010 civil service regulation handbook had an asterisk notation the chief probate clerk is "hired by statutory authority."

"The Probate Judge retained the authority to appoint the Chief Clerk vested by Ala. Code 1975 (in 12-13-40) by virtue of Section 2 Act 63 Regular Session 1963(:) 'Each officer shall appoint his own deputies, clerk, and assistants and shall fix their compensation, except as herein otherwise provided.'" The Walker County Civil Service Board Act did not repeal Section 2, the suit contends.

The suit also attaches an April 8 letter Tucker sent Howard, concluding the chief clerk position is not part of the 1969 local civil service act and is appointed by the probate judge. 

"In my opinion, you were an at will employee and your employment was terminated by letter on January 29, 2019. Your own writings acknowledge you are not subject to the act," he said. He later added rules adopted by the board in 2010 "clearly exempt the chief clerk from the act." 

"When Walker County officials were removed from the fee system the hiring authority for the chief clerk continued to be vested with the probate judge as is also set forth in Ala. Code 1975 12-13-40(4). Further, Section 3(a) and (e) of the act exclude officials and judges. It is clear that the chief clerk is both an official and has judicial authority and therefore is excluded from the act."

He wrote to Howard that "prior to and subsequent to your termination as chief clerk, an investigation of your performance was conducted. Your past performance has been unacceptable and, in many instances, violative of the laws of the state of Alabama. Without waiving my position that your employment was at-will, your termination is supported by many grounds ...."

Among the 14 points for termination listed by Tucker were "failure to carry out the major duties of the position of chief clerk," drafting documents for attorneys and instructing them to file them in direct violation of state law, failure to supervise and train an accounting technician, failure to properly supervise and maintain a good working relationship with the staff, using the county issued computer for personal business (including paying bills and keeping personal records, photos and music), not putting employee warning notices in employee files, being "witnessed during business hours in the lobby raising your voice to an attorney," and failing to sign off on reports and provide them to the probate judge. 

Tucker said she had failed to verify General Fund checking account reconciliation reports. "It has been discovered that the reconciliation of the bank accounts are incomplete for the past five years because you have not taken steps to remove from the books outstanding cashed checks," he said. 

He said, "Many of your actions and decisions were the equivalent of practicing law without a license while using the authority of your office" in violation of state law. He said documents found in her office involved customers praising the staff's employees that were not acknowledged or filed in the employee files. "Documents have been removed from official case files that included but is not limited to notes reflecting case work," he said. 

Tucker said Howard also failed to maintain records and files regarding elections. 

"Election records were found in your office in open boxes and unsecured file drawers," he said. "These documents are subject to federal guidelines that require these records to be stored securely for 23 months. Further, other election data is to be stored in a secure location for 12 months." 

Tucker concluded the letter by saying if the courts determine that she was a part of the civil service on Jan. 29, the date of the April 8 letter would be considered the date of her termination.