Lowndes Co. wins state Supreme Court case

Lowndes Co. wins state Supreme Court case
Georgia's Supreme Court Building (Source: Ga. Supreme Court)

ATLANTA (WALB) - The Supreme Court of Georgia has ruled in favor of the Lowndes County Board of Commissioners, and reversed a decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals that would have blocked the county’s lawsuit against the commissioner and board members of the state Department of Community Affairs on sovereign immunity grounds.

Sovereign immunity is a doctrine that protects state government and its agencies from being sued without the state’s consent.

The Lowndes County Superior Court dismissed the county’s claims for injunctive and declaratory relief based on sovereign immunity, and on appeal, the Court of Appeals upheld the ruling.

The high court said: “We conclude that the Court of Appeals erred by affirming the dismissal of the County’s claims against the State Defendants in their individual capacities on sovereign immunity grounds,” Justice Nels S. D. Peterson writes for the Court.

The case involves the Georgia Service Delivery Strategy Act and a dispute between the Lowndes County Board of Commissioners and the cities within Lowndes County, including Valdosta. The Act promotes coordination among municipal governments to “minimize inefficiencies resulting from duplication of services and competition between local governments and to provide a mechanism to resolve disputes over local government service delivery, funding equity and land use.”

Lowndes County's historic courthouse.
Lowndes County's historic courthouse. (Source: WALB)

The county and the cities operated under a service delivery strategy agreement they signed in 2008. In June 2016, the chairman of the Lowndes County Board of Commissioners circulated a new draft strategy agreement to the mayors of the cities of Valdosta, Dasher, Hahira, Lake Park and Remerton. On November 1, 2016, when the department had not received communication from the county and cities that they had agreed either to revise their agreement or extend the existing one, it notified the county and cities that they would be ineligible for state-administered financial assistance, grants, loans or permits until the Department could verify that Lowndes County and the cities had done so.

In January 2017, Lowndes County sued the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), its commissioner, Camila Knowles, and the mayors and councils of the cities. The petition argued that the 2008 Strategy Agreement remained in effect, and that the county and cities remained eligible for state-administered financial assistance, grants, loans and permits. After the Department and Knowles filed a motion to dismiss the case, the county amended its petition, adding members of the Board of the Department of Community Affairs as defendants.

The amended complaint sought “declaratory” relief against the state defendants in their individual capacities – seeking a declaration from the court that the county and cities remained eligible for financial assistance. The amended complaint also sought “injunctive” relief against Knowles and the Department of Community Affairs Board members in their individual capacities – seeking an injunction from the court that ordered Knowles and the board members to direct the Department to stop notifying state departments and agencies that the county and cities were ineligible for state financial support and permits. The amended complaint removed the Department as a party. Knowles and the DCA board members filed a motion to dismiss the amended petition on the basis that sovereign immunity barred the claims for injunctive and declaratory relief.

They argued that those claims actually sought to order Knowles and the DCA board members to take action in their official capacities, rather than in their individual capacities. The trial court dismissed the claims, concluding they were really claims against the State. On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s judgment, writing that it was clear that the Department, not Knowles and the department’s board members, “is the real party in interest,” and that the relief sought would “control the actions of the State” and could “only be granted by the State,” whereas Knowles and the board members have no authority in their individual capacities under the Service Delivery Strategy Act to direct the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to do anything.

The Lowndes County Board of Commissioners then appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, which agreed to review the case to address the complex sovereign immunity issues. Monday’s opinion makes clear that while sovereign immunity “bars claims against the State, its departments and agencies, and its officers and employees when sued in their official capacities,” sovereign immunity generally “does not apply to individual-capacity claims for prospective declaratory and injunctive relief against state officers and employees alleged to be acting without legal authority.”

“The Georgia Constitution allows only the General Assembly to waive the State’s sovereign immunity,” the opinion says. “We have repeatedly refused invitations to invent exceptions to that rule. But that rule requires waiver only for claims that sovereign immunity actually bars. And, as we have repeatedly explained, sovereign immunity has never barred most individual-capacity claims against state employees and officials for prospective injunctive and declaratory relief based on allegations that those defendants are acting beyond their legal authority.At least some of the claims, in this case, are precisely those kinds of claims.”

One of the limitations on such claims, however, is that the State cannot be the “real party in interest,” the opinion points out. Here, the Court of Appeals concluded that the State was actually the real party in interest because a county was seeking relief against state officials that would control the actions of the State and potentially affect state expenditures.

“But the real-party-in-interest limitation is not so broad; our case law has applied it primarily when the claimed relief would control or take the State’s real property or interfere with contracts to which the State is a party,” Monday’s opinion says. “No such relief is sought here, and applying the limitation as broadly as the State seeks would eviscerate Georgians' well-established rights to seek redress against their government. We therefore reverse the Court of appeals and hold that sovereign immunity does not bar the claims at issue in this case.”

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