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Smith v. Williams

Court of Appeals of Georgia

July 14, 2015

SMITH et al.
v.
WILLIAMS et al

Attorney fees. Lowndes Superior Court. Before Judge Perkins, from Alapaha Circuit.

Ryan Law Firm, G. Robert Ryan, Jr., for appellants.

John D. Holt, for appellees.

OPINION

Page 640

Ray, Judge.

This case stems from the breakup of a law firm, Smith, Hall & Williams, LLP. Luanne Bryant Smith and Luanne Bryant Smith, P.C. (collectively " Smith" ) filed this direct appeal from three trial court orders entered in a suit between Smith and her onetime law [333 Ga.App. 168] partner, Jennifer E. Williams, and Jennifer E. Williams, LLC (collectively " Williams" ).

Page 641

For the reasons that follow, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

The firm handled domestic, personal injury, and workers' compensation cases, among others. In November 2012, Williams alleges that, without notice, Smith packed up her things, took case files, and left the office. After Smith left,[1] Williams sued, seeking dissolution of the partnership and alleging breach of contract. She also moved for an injunction. The portion of their dispute that is before this Court turns primarily on issues related to a division of the fees earned from certain workers' compensation cases where the clients elected to retain Smith as their counsel after Smith and Williams ceased practicing together. Williams seeks 50 percent of those fees.

1. Smith contends that the trial court erred in denying her motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.[2] The gravamen of Smith's argument is that this case involves a dispute over attorney fees in workers' compensation cases and that the State Board of Workers' Compensation (the " Board" ) has exclusive jurisdiction over such disputes. The trial court did not err.

We review a trial court's ruling on a motion to dismiss de novo. Aetna Workers' Comp Access v. Coliseum Med. Center, 322 Ga.App. 641, 644 (1) (746 S.E.2d 148) (2013). An examination of the nature, jurisdiction, and authority of the Board is instructive here.

The Board is a " creature of statute" with only the jurisdiction, power, and authority conferred upon it by the General Assembly. See OCGA § 34-9-40 (" The [B]oard shall have full authority, power, and the duty to promulgate policies, rules, and regulations for the administration of this chapter." ) ... . The Board performs all the powers and duties relating to the enforcement of the Workers' Compensation Act (the " Act" ), and the Act shall be liberally construed only for the purpose of bringing employers and employees within the provisions of this chapter and to provide protection for both.

(Citations and footnote omitted; emphasis supplied.) Id. See also OCGA § 34-9-58.

The action between Smith and Williams is clearly not one between an employer and an employee within the Act's provisions. [333 Ga.App. 169] However, this Court has recognized that the Board also has jurisdiction to resolve ancillary issues relating to an employee's compensation rights under the Act. See Builders Ins. Group v. Ker-Wil Enterprises, 274 Ga.App. 522, 523-524 (2) (618 S.E.2d 160) (2005) (if a dispute is ancillary to an employee's right, the Board has authority to act; when the rights of an employee in a pending claim are not at stake, the Board may disavow ...


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