By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge has ruled that most of former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Spencer Collier’s lawsuit against former Gov. Robert Bentley, Rebekah Mason, Mason’s RCM Communications, former ALEA Secretary Stan Stabler and ALEA General Counsel Michael Robinson can move forward.
Collier has accused Bentley, Mason and the others of violating his privacy, defaming him and conspiring to prevent him from getting a job after Bentley fired him from ALEA in 2016.
The portion of the lawsuit against Mason will continue, but it will be delayed. The judge issued a separate ruling extending a stay until criminal investigations into Mason conclude.
It isn’t clear what Mason is being investigated for, though the House impeachment committee’s special counsel alleged Mason wielded an inappropriate level of influence in the governor’s office during her alleged affair with Bentley.
The former ALEA director, who publicly accused Bentley of having an affair with Mason last year, accused Bentley of firing him for cooperating with the attorney general’s investigation into former House Speaker Mike Hubbard. That portion of the lawsuit was dismissed.
Collier has said Bentley gave him explicit orders not to cooperate with prosecutors, but Collier felt it was his legal obligation to do so.
Bentley has said he has the absolute right to fire cabinet appointees who serve at his pleasure. He also claimed to have sovereign immunity — a protection afforded to constitutional officers in cases in which they are sued for performing duties within the scope of their position.
“Governor Robert Bentley is entitled to absolute immunity on these claims,” wrote Montgomery Circuit Court Judge Greg Griffin, who is hearing the case. “Further, it is not for this Court to interfere with a governor’s decision to terminate an employee that the legislature created to serve at the governor’s pleasure.”
Bentley and his attorneys, at a hearing in Montgomery on Monday, argued Bentley was shielded from the other civil counts because of the sovereign immunity protections afforded to constitutional officers.
His attorneys, in a written brief in the case, wrote that “Collier cannot use artful pleading to circumvent the Governor’s absolute State immunity to money-damages suits for actions taken in the scope of his employment as a constitutional officer.”
Bentley’s attorneys point to Section 14 of the Alabama Constitution, which says the State of Alabama can never be a defendant in a legal case. The attorneys and some court precedent extend that immunity to constitutional officers — though Collier is suing Bentley in his individual capacity.
Collier’s attorneys, on the other hand, argued that Bentley can be sued for his actions that were outside the scope of the governor’s authority, which wouldn’t be protected by sovereign immunity. The judge agreed on the other counts.
“With respect to Collier’s tort claims against Governor Robert Bentley, the Supreme Court has made clear that a constitutional officer can be held individually liable in tort for conduct outside ‘the course and scope of the officer’s employment,’” Griffin wrote in his ruling.
The violation of privacy, defamation and conspiracy claims will move forward, Griffin ruled, and the case will head into discovery.
One of Collier’s attorneys, Kenny Mendelsohn, said Monday that an ALEA investigator would testify under oath that she was encouraged to trump up allegations against Collier in an internal ALEA audit that was later released to the media and included in a document dump to the House impeachment committee.
Mendelsohn said Bentley and others falsely claimed that Collier was having an affair and had an illegitimate child. He also said investigators dug through Collier’s prescription drug history looking for evidence of an addiction.
Collier’s team has said Robinson, Stabler and Mason were involved in the development and writing of that internal ALEA report.
“Melissa and I are grateful for today’s ruling and look forward to our day in court,” Collier said in a statement. “We are one step closer to getting justice, not only for us, but for the people of Alabama.”