Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Georgia

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At issue in this case is whether the Environmental Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (“EPD”) properly issued a permit to the City of Guyton to build and operate a land application system (“LAS”) that would apply treated wastewater to a tract of land through spray irrigation. Craig Barrow III challenged the issuance of that permit, arguing that, among other things, EPD issued the permit in violation of a water quality standard, Ga. Comp. R. & Regs., r. 391-3-6-.03 (2) (b) (ii) (the “antidegradation rule”), because it failed to determine whether any resulting degradation of water quality in the State waters surrounding the proposed LAS was necessary to accommodate important economic or social development in the area. An administrative law judge rejected Barrow’s argument, finding that the rule required an antidegradation analysis only for point source discharges of pollutants and the LAS at issue was a nonpoint source discharge. The superior court affirmed the administrative ruling. The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that the plain language of the antidegradation rule required EPD to perform the antidegradation analysis for nonpoint source discharges, and that EPD’s internal guidelines to the contrary did not warrant deference. The Georgia Supreme Court granted certiorari review in this matter to consider what level of deference courts should afford EPD's interpretation of the antidegradation rule, and whether that regulation required an antidegradation analysis for nonpint source discharges. The Court concluded the Court of Appeals was correct that the antidegradation rule was unambiguous: the text and legal context of the regulation showed that an antidegradation analysis was required only for point sources, not nonpoint sources. Therefore, the Court reversed. View "City of Guyton v. Barrow" on Justia Law

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The Georgia Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine: (1) whether the Court of Appeals erred in holding that the State has waived sovereign immunity under the Georgia Torts Claims Act (“GTCA”), for Thomas McConnell’s tort action; and, (2) whether the Court of Appeals erred in holding that McConnell’s complaint failed to state a claim. In September 2012, the Georgia Department of Labor created a spreadsheet containing the name, social security number, home telephone number, email address, and age of 4,757 individuals over the age of 55 in Cherokee, Cobb, and Fulton counties who had applied for unemployment benefits or other services administered by the Department, including McConnell. Almost a year later, a Department employee inadvertently sent an email with the spreadsheet attached to approximately 1,000 recipients without the permission of the individuals whose information was included in the spreadsheet. 2014, McConnell filed a complaint against the Department on behalf of himself and a proposed class of all individuals whose information was contained in the spreadsheet, alleging negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, and invasion of privacy by public disclosure of private facts. The complaint alleged that, as a result of the Department’s negligent disclosure of McConnell’s and the other proposed class members’ personal information, they were required to place freezes and alerts with credit reporting agencies, close or modify financial accounts, and closely review and monitor their credit reports and accounts for unauthorized activity. The complaint further alleged that McConnell and others whose information had been disclosed incurred out-of-pocket costs related to credit monitoring and identity protection services and suffered adverse impacts to their credit scores related to the closure of credit accounts. The Department moved to dismiss, ruling that sovereign immunity barred the lawsuit because the GTCA did not waive the State’s immunity for the type of “loss” that McConnell alleged. McConnell appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, pretermitting a decision on sovereign immunity and addressing only the trial court’s ruling that each count of the complaint failed to state a claim. After review, the Georgia Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals and affirmed. View "Georgia Department of Labor v. McConnell" on Justia Law

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This case came to the Georgia Supreme Court by way of three certified questions from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. As the receiver of the Buckhead Community Bank, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) sued nine former directors and officers of the Bank in federal district court, alleging that the former directors and officers were negligent and grossly negligent under Georgia law for their approval of ten commercial real-estate loans. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found that some of the former directors and officers were negligent in approving four of ten loans at issue, and awarded the FDIC $4,986,993 in damages. The district court entered a final judgment in that amount and held the former directors and officers jointly and severally liable. They timely appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, arguing the district court erred by failing to instruct the jury on apportionment, which, they say, was required by OCGA 51-12-33 because purely pecuniary harms (such as the losses at issue here) were included within “injury to person or property” under Georgia’s apportionment statute. Concluding that these arguments required answers to questions of law that “have not been squarely answered by the Georgia Supreme Court or the Georgia Court of Appeals,” the Eleventh Circuit certified questions of Georgia law to the Georgia Supreme Court. The Georgia Court concluded OCGA 51-12-33 did apply to tort claims for purely pecuniary losses against bank directors and officers, but did not abrogate Georgia’s common-law rule imposing joint and several liability on tortfeasors who act in concert insofar as a claim of concerted action invokes the narrow and traditional common-law doctrine of concerted action based on a legal theory of mutual agency and thus imputed fault. View "Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation v. Loudermilk" on Justia Law

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According to precedent, Georgia superior courts had jurisdiction to review by writ of certiorari under OCGA 5-4-1 not only the judicial decisions of inferior courts, but also the quasi-judicial decisions of other instrumentalities and officers of state and local government. In Gould v. Housing Authority of the City of Augusta, 808 SE2d 109 (2017), a divided panel of the Court of Appeals held that the certiorari jurisdiction of the superior courts extended to decisions of municipal housing authorities discontinuing the provision of housing assistance under Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937. The Georgia Supreme Court brought the case up to consider whether the writ of certiorari reached so far, and concluded that it did not. Therefore, the Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals. View "Housing Authority of the City of Augusta v. Gould" on Justia Law

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The Georgia Supreme Court granted certiorari in this case to review whether the Court of Appeals erred in reversing the grant of summary judgment to the insurer on the insured’s failure-to-settle claim. The Court also asked the parties to address whether an insurer’s duty to settle arises only when the injured party presents a valid offer to settle within the insured’s policy limits or whether, even absent such an offer, a duty arises when the insurer knows or reasonably should know that settlement within the insured’s policy limits is possible. As to this threshold issue, the Court concluded an insurer’s duty to settle arises only when the injured party presents a valid offer to settle within the insured’s policy limits. Applying the applicable rules of contract construction to correspondence from two injured parties in the instant case, the Court concluded the injured parties presented to the insurer a valid offer to settle within the insured’s policy limits but that the offer did not include any deadline for accepting the offer. Based on the undisputed evidence, as a matter of law, the insurer did not act unreasonably in failing to accept the offer before it was withdrawn by the injured parties. As the insurer was entitled to summary judgment, the Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals. View "First Acceptance Insurance Company of Georgia, Inc. v. Hughes" on Justia Law

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This case stemmed from a dispute between homeowners James and Mary Hanham and Access Management Group L.P., the management agent for the St. Marlo Homeowner’s Association. In 2011, the Hanhams filed claims for trespass, nuisance, negligence, invasion of privacy and breach of contract against their neighbor Marie Berthe-Narchet (“Narchet”), her landscaper GreenMaster Landscaping Service, Inc., and Access Management in response to a landscaping project on Narchet’s property that resulted in flooding to the Hanhams’ property and restricted their view of the golf course. During a 2016 jury trial, Access Management moved for a directed verdict on the negligence and breach of contract claims; the trial court denied both motions. The jury subsequently found in favor of the Hanhams, and Access Management appealed to the Court of Appeals, alleging, among other things, that the trial court erred in denying its motion for a directed verdict as to the Hanhams’ breach of contract claim. The Court of Appeals agreed and reversed the jury’s judgment as to that claim. The Georgia Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide whether the Court of Appeals erred in reversing the trial court’s denial of Access Management’s motion for a directed verdict as to the Hanhams’ breach of contract claim. The Supreme Court concluded the Court of Appeals’ decision was in error, and reversed the judgment as it pertained to the breach of contract claim. The Court vacated the final division of the Court of Appeals’ opinion, and remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for further consideration. View "Hanham v. Access Management Group, L.P." on Justia Law

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In the early stages of the underlying lawsuit, the trial court struck fifteen paragraphs from plaintiff's complaint pursuant to OCGA 9-11-12 (f), but the Court of Appeals reversed most of that order. The Georgia Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to address how a trial court should evaluate a party’s section 9-11-12 (f) motion to strike matter from a pleading on the ground that it is “scandalous.” Because the trial court in this case did not properly evaluate the defendants’ motion to strike, and because that court should have the opportunity to properly exercise its discretion regarding the motion, the Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals' judgment in part and remanded with direction to vacate the trial court order and remand the case to the trial court for further analysis. View "Chappius v. Ortho Sport & Spine Physicians Savannah, LLC" on Justia Law

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Jason Wyno challenged the constitutionality of former OCGA 4-8-30, a portion of the Responsible Dog Ownership Law which purported to exempt local governments and their employees from liability arising from their enforcement of, or failure to enforce, that law and local dog-control ordinances. In 2011, Misty Wyno was attacked and killed by a dog owned by one of her neighbors. In the years leading up to the attack, numerous complaints about dogs at the neighbor’s address had been filed with the Lowndes County Animal Control office. Following Misty Wyno’s death, Jason Wyno brought a wrongful death action against the dog’s owners, Lowndes County, and four individual Lowndes County Animal Control employees, alleging the County and its employees negligently failed to perform ministerial duties negligently failed to provide police protection, negligently created and failed to abate a nuisance, were negligent in their control of allegedly dangerous dogs, and were negligent per se by violating several provisions of the Lowndes County Animal Control Ordinance. The complaint also made a demand for punitive damages and alleged that Lowndes County and the County Employees “acted with actual malice and/or an intent to injure in repeatedly refusing to investigate or take any action with regards to the dangerous dogs[.]” The case was dismissed on sovereign immunity grounds. Wyno argued the statute impermissibly extended the official immunity of local government employees provided in Article I, Section II, Paragraph IX (d) of the Georgia Constitution of 1983 because former OCGA 4-8-30 was not “a State Tort Claims Act.” The Georgia Supreme Court did not reach the constitutional question in this case because the Court found the trial court erred in its preliminary determination that the relevant duties imposed by the Responsible Dog Ownership Law and the Lowndes County Animal Control Ordinance in effect at the time of the incident giving rise to this suit were ministerial in nature. Instead, the Court found the relevant acts of the County Employees were discretionary. Moreover, because the record did not contain evidence the individual defendants acted with malice or intent to injure, they were protected from Wyno’s lawsuit by the official immunity provided by Paragraph IX (d). The Court therefore affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants, although for reasons different than relied upon by the trial court. View "Wyno v. Lowndes County" on Justia Law

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After the Superior Court of Jasper County issued protective orders against Steven and Jodi Bishop in favor of their neighbors, Bernie and Michael Goins and Jana and Keith Powell (“the Neighbors”), the Bishops appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed the orders in an unpublished decision. The Neighbors then moved the trial court for costs and attorney fees incurred as a result of the appellate proceedings, asserting that such an award was permissible under OCGA 16-5-94 (d) (3). The Georgia Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider the fees issue, and, following an examination of the plain language of the statute, the Supreme Court concluded OCGA 16-5-94 (d) (3) did not permit such an award in this case. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals. View "Bishop v. Goins" on Justia Law

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The Anthem Companies, Inc. and Richard Andrews appeal the grant of spoliation sanctions issued against them, arguing that the trial court erred in finding spoliation in the first instance and in sanctioning them with an adverse jury instruction. The underlying suit arose when an Anthem employee allegedly found a bug in her lunch bought from a cafeteria vendor. The employee took pictures, sending copies via email to a building superintendent, and having the images printed at a local drug store. The vendor had been removed as a company cafeteria vendor. This news was posted by someone to Facebook, and the story grew virally. The manager for the vendor, Cheryl Willis, considered the statements in the emails from the superintendent to the company were libelous, asking her attorney to demand the company retract its statements. Wills claimed that, as a result of the wide distribution of the email, the business closed, she and her then-husband filed for bankruptcy, and they lost their home, cars, and savings. Between the time of the original email and the time of trial in 2017, the printed versions of the images were lost. Wills asserted she did not know that the lost drug store prints existed until depositions were scheduled in early 2017. The Georgia Supreme Court determined that under the circumstances of this case, the trial court abused its discretion in awarding spoliation sanctions, and reversed the spoliation sanction. View "The Anthem Companies, Inc. v. Willis" on Justia Law