Section 36-25A-9

Enforcement; hearings; penalties and remedies.

(a) This chapter is designed and intended to hold members of governmental bodies, and the bodies themselves, accountable to the public for violations of this chapter. Therefore, enforcement of this chapter, except a violation of Section 26-25A-3(a)(1), may be sought by civil action brought in the county where the governmental body's primary office is located by any media organization, any Alabama citizen impacted by the alleged violation to an extent which is greater than the impact on the pubic at large, the Attorney General, or the district attorney for the circuit in which the governmental body is located; provided, however, that no member of a governmental body may serve as a plaintiff in an action brought against another member of the same governmental body for an alleged violation of this chapter. The complaint shall be verified, shall state specifically the applicable ground or grounds for the complaint as set out in subdivisions (1) through (4) of subsection (b), and shall name in their official capacity all members of the governmental body remaining in attendance at the alleged meeting held in violation of this chapter. If filed by an Alabama citizen, the complaint shall state specifically how the person is or will be impacted by the alleged violation to an extent which is greater than the impact on the public at large. Members of a governmental body who are named as a defendant in a complaint under this chapter shall serve an initial response to the complaint within seven business days of personal service of the complaint. A preliminary hearing on the complaint filed shall be held no later than 10 business days after the date of the filing of the defendant or defendants' initial response to the complaint or, if no response is filed, no later than 17 business days after the filing of the complaint, or on the nearest day thereafter as the court shall fix, having regard to the speediest possible determination of the cause consistent with the rights of the parties.

(b) In the preliminary hearing on the complaint, the plaintiff shall establish by a preponderance of the evidence that a meeting of the governmental body occurred and that each defendant attended the meeting. Additionally, to establish a prima facie case the plaintiff must present substantial evidence of one or more of the following claims:

(1) That the defendants disregarded the requirements for proper notice of the meeting pursuant to the applicable methods set forth in Section 36-25A-3.

(2) That the defendants disregarded the provisions of this chapter during a meeting, other than during an executive session.

(3) That the defendants voted to go into executive session and while in executive session the defendants discussed matters other than those subjects included in the motion to convene an executive session as required by Section 36-25A-7(b).

(4) That, other than a claim under subdivisions (1) through (3), the defendants intentionally violated other provisions of this chapter.

(c) If the court finds that the plaintiff has met its initial burden of proof as required in subsection (b) at the preliminary hearing, the court shall establish a schedule for discovery and set the matter for a hearing on the merits. If, at the preliminary hearing, the plaintiff has presented its prima facie case that an executive session appears to have been improperly conducted as set out in subsection (b)(3), the defendants shall bear the burden of proof at the hearing on the merits to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the discussions during the executive session were limited to matters related to the subjects included in the motion to convene an executive session required in Section 36-25A-7(a).

(d) During a proceeding involving claims brought under subsection (b)(3), the court shall conduct an in camera proceeding or adopt another procedure as necessary to protect the confidentiality of the matters discussed during the executive session, and if there is a determination that the executive session was authorized by this chapter, the matters shall not be disclosed or utilized in any other legal proceeding by any individual or attorney who attends the in camera portion of the proceedings.

(e) Upon proof by a preponderance of the evidence of a defendant's violation of this chapter, the circuit court shall issue an appropriate final order including, if appropriate, a declaratory judgment or injunction. Prior to a final determination of the merits, temporary restraining orders or preliminary injunctions may be issued upon proper motion and proof as provided and required in the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure. A final order on the merits shall be issued within 60 days after the preliminary hearing unless a longer period is consented to by all parties and the court.

(f) The court may invalidate the action or actions taken during a meeting held in violation of this chapter, provided that the complaint is filed within 21 days of the date when the action is made public, the violation was not the result of mistake, inadvertence, or excusable neglect, and invalidation of the governmental action taken would not unduly prejudice third parties who have changed their position or taken action in good faith reliance upon the challenged action of the governmental body; provided further, however, that any action taken at an open meeting conducted in a manner consistent with this chapter shall not be invalidated because of a violation of this chapter which occurred prior to such meeting.

(g) A final order issued against a defendant shall state specifically upon which claim or claims in subdivisions (1) through (4) the ruling is based. For each meeting proven to be held in violation of this chapter for one or more reasons, the court shall impose a civil penalty payable to the plaintiff(s). The maximum penalty for each meeting shall not exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000) or one half of the defendant's monthly salary for service on the governmental body, whichever is less. The minimum penalty shall be one dollar ($1). With regard to claims related to improper discussions during executive sessions, monetary penalties may only be assessed against defendant members of a governmental body who voted to go into an executive session and who remained in the executive session during a discussion determined by the court not to have been authorized by this chapter. Penalties imposed against a member of a governmental body found to have acted in violation of this chapter shall not be paid by nor reimbursed to the member by the governmental body he or she serves. If more than one cause of action is filed pursuant to this chapter, all causes of action based on or arising out of the same alleged violation or violations shall be consolidated into the action that was first filed and any party may intervene into the consolidated action pursuant to the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure, and no member found to have acted in violation of this chapter by a final court order and assessed a penalty as authorized herein shall be subject to further liability or penalty to the same or different plaintiffs in separate causes of action for the same violation or violations.

(h) A governmental body is authorized to pay for or provide for the legal expenses of present or former members of the body named as defendants in a proceeding under this chapter.

(Act 2005-40, p. 55, §9; Act 2015-340, §1.)