Alabama Supreme Court issues opinion in lawsuit against commission that oversees Rocket Center

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - The Alabama Supreme Court issued an opinion on November 21 regarding a class action lawsuit against Alabama Space Science Exhibit Commission members. The commission oversees the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville.

The lawsuit, originally filed in 2014, alleges the commission failed to pay Rocket Center employees the correct amount of annual longevity bonus and improperly compensated those who worked on certain state holidays. Three former employees filed the suit, saying the center did not comply with paid state holiday regulations because it observed fewer state holidays than it was required to. Therefore, it alleges the employees did not receive the compensation they are due.

Meanwhile, the Commission argues it has immunity from lawsuits as a state entity. It asked for the case to be dismissed, later arguing that a class certification is inappropriate. It attempted to prevent the class from being certified, saying the class claims don't meet the statute of limitations and citing concerns that the employees no longer work for the commission.

Now, the Alabama Supreme Court is weighing into the appeal, and the class action will move forward.

The court unanimously upheld, in a 52-page opinion, that the plaintiffs' attorneys can create the class in preparation to make the suit a class-action.

"It means we can represent all the employees of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center," said attorney Eric Artrip. "We have filed this as a class action and now the Alabama Supreme Court said we can continue to pursue the case altogether as a class action."

The Supreme Court also dismissed defendants' claim that the Commission was immune from lawsuits because of "state immunity."

The U.S. Space and Rocket Center's Director of Communications, Patricia Ammons, issued a statement to WHNT News 19 saying, "The Alabama Space Science Exhibit Commission greatly values the service of its employees and is committed to ensuring that they are properly compensated for the dedicated support of our on-going mission. The Commission is pleased that the Alabama Supreme Court recognized that the Commission officials are employees of the State of Alabama and should not be parties to this lawsuit.  The Commission continues to maintain that it has properly compensated all of its past and present employees and has routinely relied upon the advice of legal counsel to ensure that the Commission complies with all applicable state laws."

The initial lawsuit came about after a Department of Examiners of Public Accounts released an audit of the commission in 2014. The report revealed eight noncompliance items that varied in topic, from longevity payments for employees to failure to comply with the Alabama Open Meetings Act.

At the time, U.S. Space & Rocket Center's spokesman had said the state agency was complying with the audit's findings.

"It looked at the way they were paying their employees and told them, you are not doing it right, you need to do it properly," Artrip said of the DEPA audit. "Even having received this information, the folks at the Space and Rocket Center refused."

Now, Artrip said he is preparing to send notice to the employees and former employees who are eligible to be a part of the class.

"Ultimately, we want to go try this case to a Madison County jury and let them determine whether they think the decision not to pay the employees according to state law was justified," he said.

He said nearly 100 people have already reached out to his office, asking to be represented in the case. Artrip told WHNT News 19 the class would include employees from the past 4 years.