In this week's Alabama Law Weekly Update, we present for your consideration one decision released by an Alabama appellate court and one from a federal district court. In the first, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals addressed when an irrevocable license to use real property is created and whether a subsequent purchaser on notice of the license is bound by it. In the second, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama addressed an employee's claims that her employer discriminated and retaliated against her on the basis of her religion, race and taking leave under the FMLA.
The Riverbend Association, Inc. v. Riverbend, LLC, and River Bend Marina, LLC, [Ms. 2130579, Apr. 10, 2015] – So. 3d – (Ala. Civ. App. 2015) (an irrevocable real property license was created and was enforceable against licensor's successor)
A condominium owners' association, The Riverbend Association, entered into a “lease agreement” with Anne Homes, which owned and operated a sewage-treatment plant servicing the Association's owners' units. Under the original agreement, the Association was responsible for 90% of the expenses associated with operating the sewage plant. After a bank foreclosed on and purchased the plant, the bank and the Association amended the agreement to clarify that it really was a license agreement. The amendment also stated that all users would bear a pro rata share of the expenses of the plant if any additional users were added, rather than the Association's prior payments of 90% of the costs. Both the lease and the amendment were recorded in the probate court records.
The bank then sold the plant and the deed transferring the property specifically referenced the lease and the amendment. That owner then conveyed the plant to Riverbend LLC, the defendant in this case, but the deed failed to reference the lease or the amendment. After additional users were added, the Association filed suit requesting the court apportion the plant's expenses on a pro rata basis among all users pursuant to the amended agreement. The plant owner claimed it was not bound by the lease or amendment and claimed it was entitled to change the billing plan for its services to a per-user billing plan based on consumption. The trial court found in favor of the plant owner.
On appeal, the Association argued that it had an irrevocable license to use the plant and that the license should be enforced against Riverbend. Generally, a license to use real property is terminable at will. However, when the Association expended money to maintain the plant pursuant to the agreement and amendment, it greatly benefitted Riverbend. The Court of Civil Appeals held that the benefit conferred on Riverbend, and its successors, made the license irrevocable. The court also held that the license was enforceable against Riverbend because both the agreement and the amendment were recorded in the probate office, and Riverbend's title opinion excepted both the agreement and amendment from coverage. Therefore, the court found Riverbend was on notice of the license when it took ownership. Because of this, Riverbend was prevented from altering the billing practices established by the license and was required to abide by the amended agreement.
Monica Johnson v. Mobile Infirmary Medical Center, No. CIV.A. 13-0431-WS-M, (S.D. Ala. Apr. 7, 2015) (deciding employees various employment discrimination and retaliation claims)
Following a suspension from employment, Monica Johnson sued her employer, Mobile Infirmary Medical Center, claiming religious discrimination, race discrimination, Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) retaliation and interference, and Title VII retaliation. On the religious discrimination claim, Johnson notified the Infirmary when she began working that she was a Seventh Day Adventist and would be unable to work between the hours of sunset on Friday evenings to sunset on Saturday evenings in order to observe her Sabbath. Johnson alleged the Infirmary discriminated against her religion by forcing her to work on her Sabbath under penalty of suspension. Although Johnson claimed she was disciplined because of her religious beliefs, the evidence showed that she was disciplined because she left work early to tend to her ill son. Because she did not show that she was disciplined for failing to comply with an employment requirement conflicting with her religious beliefs, the court dismissed this claim.
Johnson also claimed that the Infirmary discriminated against her on the basis of her race by forcing her to make up missed work days when white employees who missed their regularly scheduled work days were not required to do so. In order to prevail on such a claim, an employee must show that similarly situated employees who are not of the same race were treated more favorably than the complaining employee. The court dismissed this claim because Johnson failed to make that showing when one comparison employee was of Johnson's same race, another had vastly different disciplinary problems, and the third was exempted from the same scheduling requirements as Johnson.
Johnson also alleged the Infirmary illegally interfered with her right to take time off from work to care for her seriously ill child, which was protected by the FMLA, and that the Infirmary retaliated against her for taking that leave. Under the facts given, which were too lengthy to discuss here, the interference claim was allowed to proceed while the retaliation claim was dismissed.
Finally, Johnson claimed that the Infirmary retaliated against when she complained to management about how her immediate supervisor treated her worse than other employees. She argued her hours were decreased and she was denied light work duty following an on the job injury because of her complaints. The court disagreed, dismissing the claim and finding that Johnson's hours actually increased after her complaints. The court also found that Johnson failed to show a causal link between her complaints and the request for light work when over a year passed between the complaints and her request for accommodation, further supporting the dismissal.