Alabama district demands repayment from employees it mistakenly overpaid

In April, Christie Payne and Shellie Smith were held financially responsible for a payroll mishap. Now they're suing the superintendent.

In April, a pair of Chilton County, Alabama school employees sued Superintendent Jason Griffin for demanding tens of thousands of dollars in repayment as it was discovered that they were mistakenly overpaid.

This week it was announced that the lawsuit is moving forward, a judge ruled Tuesday.

Cafeteria manager Christie Payne and career tech teacher Shellie Smith each received letters asking for their respective payments of $33,000 and $23,000.

“I need help!!!” Payne said in a Facebook post that went viral after she received the letter. “Just received this in the mail. Had no idea this was happening. Now I have 7 days to fix a 6-year mistake made by payroll dept. Anyone have the answer?”

Christie Payne posted the letter on Facebook asking for help.

According to their letters, they were each incorrectly paid for years of experience they didn’t have.

“The employee went from assistant manager to manager,” Payne’s letter read. “The employee should have started at step 0 of the manager schedule but was given years of experience as an assistant.”

For each month the payment is not taken care of, the letter continues, $254 will be added to the total.

According to court documents, the two were not aware they were being overpaid. If the district continues to press the issue, Payne and Smith will face “serious, adverse financial harm through no fault of their own.”

“We want to make sure these employees are treated fair,” Alabama Education Administration Associate Executive Director Theron Stokes said in a statement. “And we know that they don’t owe one dime back to the board of education.”

Dianne Gamble, Superintendent Griffin’s lawyer, contends that he is protected by sovereign immunity, which grants protection to federal employees for torts committed during their time of employment. However, Circuit Judge Sibley Reynolds ruled such a defense isn’t enough to dismiss the case. “Superintendent Jason Griffin is not the king,” Stokes told CBS 42. “He is not the king of Chilton County, and he’s not the king of the state of Alabama.”

The AEA released a statement applauding Reynolds for denying Griffin’s motion to dismiss.

“This means AEA members Christie Payne and Shellie Smith, who were accused of being overpaid in April, can continue to fight Superintendent Griffin’s reprehensive misconduct that asks these hard-working educators to pay back thousands of earned dollars,” the statement reads.

“We thank Judge Reynolds for seeing through Superintendent Griffin’s bogus argument that he is immune from suit and can essentially get away with whatever he so chooses.”

Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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