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City of Atlanta v. Mitcham

Supreme Court of Georgia

February 16, 2015


Page 321

Certiorari to the Court of Appeals of Georgia -- 325 Ga.App. 481.

Judgment reversed.

Cathy Hampton, Laura S. Burton, for appellants.

Charles H. McAleer, for appellee.

Dubberly & McGovern, Joseph D. McGovern, Brown, Readdick, Bumgartner, Carter, Strickland & Watkins, Richard K. Strickland, Paul M. Scott, amici curiae.

THOMPSON, Chief Justice. All the Justices concur.


Page 322

Thompson, Chief Justice.

We granted a petition for writ of certiorari in this case to determine whether the Court of Appeals used the proper analysis when it determined that the provision of medical care by the City of Atlanta to inmates in its custody was a ministerial function for which the City of Atlanta's sovereign immunity had been waived. See City of Atlanta v. Mitcham, 325 Ga.App. 481 (751 S.E.2d 598) (2013). Because we find that the care of inmates in the custody of a municipal corporation is a governmental function for which sovereign immunity has not been waived, we reverse.

Appellee Barto Mitcham filed a negligence action against appellants, the City of Atlanta (the " City" ) and George Turner, in his official capacity as the Chief of Police for the City of Atlanta Police Department, alleging that Mitcham was seriously injured as a result of appellants' failure to provide him necessary medical treatment while in their custody. Mitcham specifically alleged that after he was arrested by the City of Atlanta Police Department, he became ill because of low blood sugar associated with diabetes. He was taken to the hospital, and upon his discharge and release back into the custody of the City, Atlanta Police Department officers were informed of his diabetic condition and the need to monitor and regulate his insulin levels. He alleged they failed to do so, causing him further illness and serious and permanent injuries.

Appellants answered the complaint and filed a joint motion to dismiss on sovereign immunity grounds. See OCGA § 9-11-12 (b) (6). The trial court denied the motion, finding that Mitcham's claims were not barred by sovereign immunity because the provision of " medical attention and/or care for an inmate is a ministerial act which does not involve the exercise of discretion." Relying primarily on its opinion in Cantrell v. Thurman, 231 Ga.App. 510 (499 S.E.2d 416) (1998), a case involving claims against a county sheriff and the constitutional waiver of the sovereign immunity of the state and its departments and agencies under Article I, Section II, Paragraph IX (d) of the Georgia Constitution, the Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that " the provision of medical care to inmates in the City's and Turner's [296 Ga. 577] custody was a ministerial act and, because it was a ministerial act, sovereign immunity was waived pursuant to OCGA § 36-33-1 (b)." [1] We granted certiorari.

1. A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim should not be granted unless the allegations of the complaint demonstrate to a certainty that the plaintiff would be entitled to no relief under any state of facts which could be proved in support thereof. Anderson v. Flake, 267 Ga. 498, 501 (2) (480 S.E.2d 10) (1997). Appellants moved to dismiss Mitcham's claims on the ground of sovereign immunity. Under Georgia law, municipal corporations are protected by sovereign immunity pursuant not to Article I of the Constitution but rather Article IX, Section II, Paragraph IX, unless that immunity is waived by the General Assembly. See Godfrey v. Ga. Interlocal Risk Mgmt. Agency, 290 Ga. 211, 214 (719 S.E.2d 412) (2011) (absent legislative scheme providing for specific waiver, there is no waiver of municipal sovereign immunity). See also City of Thomaston v. Bridges, 264 Ga. 4 (439 S.E.2d 906) (1994). With particular regard to municipal corporations, our General Assembly has enacted OCGA § 36-33-1 which reiterates that " it is the public policy of the State of Georgia that there is no waiver of the sovereign immunity of municipal corporations of the state and such municipal corporations shall be immune from liability from damages." OCGA § 36-33-1 (a). The same statute, however, also provides for a narrow waiver

Page 323

of a municipal corporation's sovereign immunity, expressly providing in subsection (b) that " [m]unicipal corporations shall not be liable for failure to perform or for errors in performing their legislative or judicial powers. For neglect to perform or for improper or unskillful performance of their ministerial duties, they shall be liable." [2] OCGA § 36-33-1 (b). This provision has for more than a century been interpreted to mean that [296 Ga. 578] municipal corporations are immune from liability for acts taken in performance of a governmental function but may be liable for the negligent performance of their ministerial duties. See Koehler v. Massell, 229 Ga. 359, 361-362 (3) (191 S.E.2d 830) (1972); Mayor and Aldermen of Savannah v. Jones, 149 Ga. 139, 141-142 (99 S.E. 294) (1919); Wright v. City Council of Augusta, 78 Ga. 241, 243-244 (1886). The propriety of the trial court's ruling on appellants' motion to dismiss thus turns on whether appellants' failure to provide medical treatment to an inmate in the City's custody involved a governmental function.

2. Governmental functions traditionally have been defined as those of a purely public nature, intended for the benefit of the public at large, without pretense of private gain to the municipality. See Cornelisen v. City of Atlanta, 146 Ga. 416, 419 (91 S.E. 415) (1917). The exemption from liability for governmental functions " is placed upon the ground that the service is performed by the corporation in obedience to an act of the legislature, is one in which the corporation has no particular interest and from which it derives no special benefit in its corporate capacity." Wright, supra, 78 Ga. at 243, quoting Dillon (2 Municipal Corp. § 976, 3rd ed.). Ministerial functions, in comparison, are recognized as those involving the " exercise of some private franchise, or some franchise conferred upon [the municipal corporation] by law which it may exercise for the private profit or convenience of the corporation or for the convenience of its citizens alone, in which the general public has no interest." [3] Love v. City of Atlanta, 95 Ga. 129, 131 (22 S.E. 29) (1894).

Page 324

[296 Ga. 579] The exemption from liability for governmental functions set out in OCGA § 36-33-1 (b) thus left in place " the common-law doctrine, frequently applied in this State before and since the adoption of the code, of non-liability for conduct of officers, agents and servants of municipal corporations in respect to duties devolving upon them in virtue of the sovereign or governmental functions of the municipality." Brannan v. City of Brunswick, 49 Ga.App. 62 (174 S.E. 186) (1934). It reflects a municipal corporation's dual functions, performing in the exercise of its corporate functions two classes of service, governmental duties and private corporate, or ministerial, duties. Jones, supra, 149 Ga. at 141. See Purser v. Dodge County, 188 Ga. 250, 251 (3 S.E.2d 574) (1939) (recognizing that municipal corporations act in dual capacities, " exercising powers pertaining not only to their delegated sovereignty, but powers of ministerial or proprietary in character." ). As this Court has recognized with approval:

A municipal corporation has a dual character, the one public and the other private, and exercises correspondingly two-fold functions, the one governmental and legislative, and the other private and ministerial. In its public character, it acts as an agency of the State to enable it the better to govern that portion of its people residing within the municipality, and to this end there is granted to or imposed upon it, by the charter of its creation, powers and duties to be exercised and performed exclusively for public governmental purposes. These powers are legislative and discretionary, and the municipality is exempt from liability for an injury resulting from the failure to exercise them or from their improper or negligent exercise. In its corporate and private character there are granted unto it privileges and powers to be exercised for its own private advantage, which are for public purposes in no other sense than that the public derives a common benefit from the proper discharge of the duties imposed or assumed in consideration of the privileges and powers conferred. This latter class of powers and duties are not discretionary, but ministerial and absolute; and, for an injury resulting from [296 Ga. 580] negligence in their exercise or performance, the municipality is liable in a civil action for damages, in the same manner as an individual or private corporation.

Mayor and Council of Dalton v. Wilson, 118 Ga. 100, 102 (44 S.E. 830) (1903), quoting Jones v. Williamsburg, 97 Va. 722, 723-724 (34 S.E. 883) (Va. 1900).

This Court on occasion has acknowledged the difficulty in determining to which of the two classes a function belongs, the proper classification depending in each case on an interpretation of the powers and duties delegated to the corporation and the character of the function being performed. See Mayor and Council of Dalton, supra, 118 Ga. at 102-103; Love, supra, 95 Ga. at 131. Our courts, however, have had no difficulty concluding that the operation of a jail and the care and treatment of individuals in police custody are purely governmental functions related to the governmental duty to ensure public safety and maintain order for the benefit of all citizens. See Hurley v. City of Atlanta, 208 Ga. 457, 457-459 (67 S.E.2d 571) (1951) (dismissing writ of certiorari as improvidently granted while approving Court of Appeals' ruling that " keep and maintenance of the convict ... was a governmental function, for the negligent performance of which the city was not liable to him in damages" ); Gray v. Mayor and City of Griffin, 111 Ga. 361, 363 (36 S.E. 792) (1900) (when city " maintains a prison wherein to confine offenders ... for safe-keeping until they can be tried, it is exercising" a governmental power); Nisbet v. City of Atlanta, 97 Ga. 650 (25 S.E. 173) (1895) (municipality not liable for death of convict while doing work in police custody and caused by city foreman's failure to provide medical treatment because at the time the municipal corporation was " exercising governmental powers and discharging governmental duties" ); Thomas v. Williams, 105 Ga.App. 321, 325 (2), (3) (124 S.E.2d 409) (1962) (municipality not liable for negligent acts of city officer in care of prisoner in city custody). See also OCGA § 36-33-3 (" A municipal corporation shall not be liable for torts of policemen or other officers engaged in the discharge of the duties imposed on them by law." ). It has been uniformly held, therefore,

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that there can be no action for damages against a municipal corporation for its failure to provide medical care to an inmate regardless of the presence of negligence.[4] [296 Ga. 581] We find this precedent binding and reaffirm that when a municipal corporation, through the exercise of its governmental power, provides or fails to provide medical treatment to an inmate in its custody it is performing a governmental function for which its sovereign immunity has not been waived by the enactment of OCGA § 36-33-1 (b). That a municipal corporation performs this function under the mandate of OCGA § 42-5-2 (a),[5] a statute requiring municipal corporations and other governmental entities to provide medical treatment to inmates in their custody, is further evidence that it is a function governmental in nature; that is, one performed in obedience to an act of the legislature, for the benefit of the general public, and for which the municipal corporation derives no special benefit.[6]

The Court of Appeals acknowledged the constitutional and statutory duty of state and local governments to provide medical treatment to inmates in their custody but found the mandatory nature of this duty, i.e., the absence of any discretion in whether the duty should be performed, supported its conclusion that the provision of medical treatment to inmates by a municipal corporation is a " ministerial act." [7] See City of Atlanta v. Mitcham, supra, 325 Ga.App. at 484. This analysis and its reference to a municipal corporation's " ministerial acts" rather than its " ministerial functions" reflects a confusion regarding the separate doctrines of sovereign and official immunity and the substantive differences between the ministerial functions performed by a government body and the ministerial acts of an individual.

As stated, a municipal corporation is immune from liability for acts taken in the performance of its governmental functions but it may be held liable for the negligent performance of its ministerial functions. The determination of whether a function is governmental [296 Ga. 582] or ministerial in character for purposes of municipal sovereign immunity focuses broadly on the nature, purpose, and intended beneficiaries of the function performed by the municipal corporation. See Jones, supra, 149 Ga. at 141-142; Love, supra, 95 Ga. at 131. In comparison, the term " ministerial act," as it applies to the waiver of an individual's official immunity under Article I, Section II, Paragraph IX (d) of the Georgia Constitution, is defined by the character of the specific action taken by the government official or employee and the amount of discretion and judgment applied in executing a specific duty. See McDowell v. Smith, 285 Ga. 592, 593 (678 S.E.2d 922) (2009); Heller v. City of Atlanta, 290 Ga.App. 345, 347-348 (659 S.E.2d 617) (2008). See also Murphy v. Bajjani, 282 Ga. 197, 199 (647 S.E.2d 54) (2007). While both terms share the ministerial

Page 326

modifier, whether an act performed by a municipal employee is ministerial or discretionary is not a consideration in the analysis of whether a municipality's sovereign immunity has been waived. This is because municipal sovereign immunity applies equally to, i.e., bars claims arising from, both ministerial and discretionary acts. See Sinkfield v. Pike, 201 Ga.App. 652, 653 (3) (411 S.E.2d 889) (1991) (" [c]ity is immune from any liability for [the employee's] actions regardless of whether his actions were discretionary or ministerial and even if he [is] negligent" ); Christensen v. Floyd County, 158 Ga.App. 274 (279 S.E.2d 723) (1981) (decision whether to erect or maintain traffic control sign is exercise of a governmental function by a municipality, and municipality not liable for even negligent performance of this function). See also Seay v. Cleveland, 270 Ga. 64, 65 (508 S.E.2d 159) (1998) (county's sovereign immunity applies equally to ministerial and discretionary acts). Accordingly, the definition and evaluation of an act performed by an individual for purposes of official immunity is not interchangeable with and should not be substituted for the definition used to identify the nature of the functions of a municipal government for purposes of sovereign immunity. As noted by Judge Branch in her special concurrence in this case, it is important for both courts and litigants not to confuse the term " ministerial duties" as it pertains to the question of official immunity with the term " ministerial functions" as it is used in determining the waiver of sovereign immunity under OCGA § 36-33-1 (b). In doing so, the Court of Appeals erred.

The analysis of the Court of Appeals is further flawed in its application of Cantrell v. Thurman, supra, to this case. Cantrell involved the constitutional waiver of a county's sovereign immunity under Article I, Section II, Paragraph IX (d) of the Georgia Constitution, a waiver not applicable to municipal corporations and one for which it is wholly irrelevant whether the action was taken in the [296 Ga. 583] performance of a governmental function.[8] In relying so heavily upon the holding of Cantrell, a holding this Court has never endorsed, the Court of Appeals ignored the plain language of OCGA § 36-33-1 (b) and the clear distinction between the constitutional waiver of an official's immunity under Article I, Section II, Paragraph IX (d) and the waiver of municipal sovereign immunity found in OCGA § 36-33-1 (b).[9]

3. Because there has been no waiver of the City's sovereign immunity in this case, Mitcham is precluded from pursuing his negligence claims against both the City and Turner in his official capacity. See Cameron v. Lang, 274 Ga. 122, 126-127 (3) (549 S.E.2d 341) (2001); Campbell v. Goode, 304 Ga.App. 47, 50 (695 S.E.2d 44) (2010) (claim against city police officer in his official capacity is, in reality, a suit against the city and subject to a claim of sovereign immunity). Accordingly, the decision of the Court of Appeals affirming the trial court's denial of appellants' motion to dismiss is reversed.

Judgment reversed. All the Justices concur.

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