Certiorari Available to Review “Final” Administrative Decisions Under Fair Dismissal Act

The common-law writ of certiorari is available to review administrative decisions under § 36-26-115 of Alabama’s Fair Dismissal Act, the Court of Civil Appeals held, even though that statute makes administrative decisions “final” and non-appealable. South Ala. Skills Training Consortium v. Ford, No. 2060837 (Ala. Civ. App. Jun. 6, 2008). The appellate court also explained the standards governing certiorari review.

An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) rescinded the firing of eight employees of various public colleges, ruling that the employees had not been given notice and hearings under Alabama’s Fair Dismissal Act (FDA). The colleges challenged that decision by filing a petition in the Montgomery Circuit Court for a common-law writ of certiorari.

The employees moved to dismiss the petition. They argued that, because Ala. Code § 36-26-115 makes an ALJ’s decision in such cases “final,” the colleges “had no right to appeal or petition for certiorari review” in the circuit court. 

The circuit court agreed. It denied the colleges’ petition and granted the employees’ motion to dismiss. The colleges appealed.

The Court of Civil Appeals took a different view. Despite its statutory “finality,” the ALJ’s decision could be reviewed by common-law certiorari. The appellate court first acknowledged that the Legislature has the power to limit or deny the right of appeal in particular cases. Here, by making ALJ decisions “final,” § 36-26-115 indeed “prohibits an appeal.” “Nevertheless, that prohibition of appeal by the legislature does not affect the authority of the court to review the proceedings below by granting certiorari.” The court continued:

This court has both statutory and constitutional authority to review the decisions of inferior tribunals via a petition for a writ of certiorari. . . . The constitution grants similar authority to the circuit court.

This checked § 36-26-115’s apparent negation of judicial review. The Court of Civil Appeals wrote: “[T]he legislature may not strip the courts of the authority to review the decisions of lower tribunals via a petition for the common-law writ of certiorari.”

The “proper vehicle” for obtaining circuit-court review of an administrative decision under the FDA is thus “by a writ of certiorari.” “From a decision by the circuit court on the writ of certiorari, review to [the Court of Civil Appeals] would be on an appeal.”

The appellate court thus reversed the circuit court’s judgment that certiorari will not lie to review an ALJ’s decision under § 36-26-115 of the FDA.

(In treating a substantive question under the FDA — which is otherwise irrelevant to our present appellate concerns — the Court of Civil Appeals also set out the standards that govern certiorari review. A circuit court’s “scope of review” on certiorari is “limited” to determining whether the challenged decision is “supported by legal evidence,” and whether “the law [was] correctly applied to the facts.” “Questions of fact or weight or sufficiency of the evidence will not be reviewed on certiorari.” “In addition,” the circuit court is “responsible for reviewing the record to ensure that the fundamental rights of the parties, including the right to due process,” was “not violated.” On appeal, the “scope of appellate review is the same as that of the circuit court.”)