Two South Georgians lose Supreme Court cases

Two South Georgians lose Supreme Court cases

ATLANTA, GA (WALB) - A mother who sued to collect her son's death benefits, and a company that was told it had to stop collecting garbage in Lowndes County lost their cases at the state's highest court.

In the case of Barzey V. City Of Cuthbert, the Supreme Court of Georgia has upheld a Randolph County court ruling that a woman whose adult son was killed while working for the City of Cuthbert is not entitled to her son's death benefit, even though she is his only legal heir. She argued the Georgia statute barring her from the compensation is unconstitutional.

On July 16, 2010, 37-year-old Deron Shorter was operating a mower for the City of Cuthbert when he crashed into a ditch. The mower overturned on Shorter and he was pronounced dead at the scene. Prior to his job with the public works department, Shorter had been a city firefighter for 13 years. He was not married and had no dependents. Shorter did, however, have a mother – Louise Shorter Barzey – who, under the law, was considered his sole heir. She was not dependent on her son. But as his sole legal heir, she filed a lawsuit against the City, claiming she was entitled to his death benefit under the Georgia Workers' Compensation Act. The City disagreed, based on a provision of the Act, Official Code of Georgia § 34-9-265, which says that the death benefit for a worker who dies on the job may only be paid to legal dependents. For the employee who has no dependents, expenses for the employee's burial “shall be the only compensation,” the statute says. Barzey argued that drawing the distinction between dependents and heirs violated her federal constitutional rights to due process and equal protection by precluding her, as a non-dependent parent, from bringing a claim to recover for his death. The City filed a motion requesting “summary judgment,” which a trial judge grants after determining that a trial is unnecessary because the facts are undisputed and the law falls squarely on the side of one of the parties. In October 2013, the trial court ruled in the City's favor, and Barzey then appealed to the state Supreme Court.

But in today's unanimous opinion, Justice David Nahmias writes: “We affirm the trial court's ruling that the Act's limitation on the recovery of non-dependent heirs does not violate Barzey's constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.”

A statute “does not violate due process in substance as long as it ‘bear[s] a rational relationship to a legitimate objective of the government,'” the opinion says. Similarly, to survive an equal protection challenge, “the classifications drawn in the statute [must] bear a rational relationship to a legitimate end of government not prohibited by the Constitution.”

While the Georgia Supreme Court has not previously ruled on the constitutionality of excluding non-dependent heirs from recovery under the Workers' Compensation Act, a number of courts in other jurisdictions have. “Those courts have consistently held that the legislature may rationally decide to direct workers' compensation resources to those who are dependent on deceased employees and limit the recovery of non-dependents, and thus the distinction between dependents and non-dependents does not violate federal or state constitutional rights to due process and equal protection,” today's opinion says, citing a number of cases.

“We are persuaded by the reasoning of these cases, and we accordingly hold that because the Workers' Compensation Act's differing treatment of dependent and non-dependent heirs is not irrational and serves the legitimate government purpose of workers' compensation, the Act's limitation on recovery by non-dependent heirs does not violate the due process or equal protection rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution.”

In the case of Advanced Disposal Services Middle Georgia, Llc V. Deep South Sanitation, Llc, Et Al., Lowndes County V. Deep South Sanitation, Llc, Et Al.

The Supreme Court of Georgia has reversed a lower court's decision and ruled that Lowndes County has the right to stop a private company from continuing to provide curbside residential trash service because it violates a new local ordinance.

Prior to Feb. 1, 2013, Lowndes County had never provided curbside solid waste collection services to residents. Rather, the County operated six solid waste collection centers where residents of the County's unincorporated areas could bring solid waste upon purchase of an authorization card that cost $100 a year, according to briefs filed in the case. About half the county's 12,000 residents in unincorporated areas availed themselves of the County's waste collection centers. The remaining residents contracted with three private companies that provided curbside residential trash service. Those companies were Deep South Sanitation, LLC, All-Green Services, LLC, and Veolia ES Solid Waste Southeast, Inc., which was the predecessor of Advanced Disposal Services Middle Georgia, LLC. Deep South had been providing curbside service since Oct. 15, 2011. It is a small company that serves about 500 residents and employs the owner, his wife, children and two other employees.

The County realized it was losing money on the six collection centers – about $400,000 a year – and it began considering alternatives. In August 2012, the County issued a Request for Proposals, soliciting proposals for curbside residential solid waste collection services in the county's unincorporated areas. The Request for Proposals required that each proposal include a $25,000 check and that the bidder commit to serving all of the estimated 12,000 residents in unincorporated Lowndes County. Five proposals were submitted. Deep South, which claimed it did not have the cash available to pay the bid bond, or the equipment and manpower to serve all 12,000 residents, did not submit a bid.

In December 2012, the Lowndes County Board of Commissioners adopted an ordinance authorizing an exclusive franchise for the collection of solid waste from residential customers in the county's unincorporated areas. The ordinance prohibited the provision of solid waste collection services without a franchise or temporary permit. At the same time it adopted the ordinance, the Board also approved a franchise agreement granting Advanced Disposal Services an exclusive franchise for the services. Both the franchise and ordinance became effective Feb.1, 2013. Meanwhile, Deep South continued offering its services, even though it did not have a franchise or permit.

On April 24, 2013, the County sued Deep South, seeking an injunction to prohibit it from providing residential solid waste collection in unincorporated Lowndes County in violation of the ordinance. Advanced Disposal Services, which was allowed to intervene as a party in the case, also filed a complaint seeking an injunction against Deep South. Deep South responded that enforcement of the ordinance would result in an unconstitutional taking of private property, violate its due process rights, and create an illegal monopoly. Following a hearing, the trial court ruled against the County and Advanced Disposal Services, finding that an injunction would violate Deep South's rights because “Deep South operated the business prior to the enactment of the Ordinance and execution of the Exclusive Franchise Agreement.” The trial court also ruled that enforcement of the ordinance against Deep South was prohibited under the Sherman Antitrust Act. The County and Advanced Disposal Services then appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.

In today's unanimous opinion, Chief Justice Hugh Thompson writes that “we conclude the trial court erred by holding that enforcement of the ordinance against Deep South would violate its due process rights.”

Regulation of the collection of solid waste “serves the legitimate public purpose of protecting the public health, safety, and welfare,” the opinion says. The County chose to enter into an exclusive franchise agreement “because it offered the best opportunity to provide curbside collection of solid waste, yard waste, and recycling in a cost-effective and uniform manner to all of its residents in the unincorporated areas, thereby discouraging illegal dumping in the county.” The ordinance's authorization of an exclusive franchise relates to the County's goal of “providing complete, uniform, and affordable solid waste collection services to Lowndes County residents living in the unincorporated areas of the county.”

In response to Deep South's argument that the ordinance creates an illegal monopoly, the high court points out that, “it is well-established that local governmental entities are immune from antitrust laws when engaged in anti[-]competitive conduct pursuant to a clearly expressed state policy.” Therefore, the trial court also erred in denying injunctive relief on the grounds that enforcement of the ordinance was prohibited by the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Attorneys for Appellants (County): Walter Elliott, James Elliott, Robert Norman

Attorney for Appellee (Deep South): Robert Plumb, Jr.

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