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Schroeder v. Dekalb County

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

June 14, 2017

SCHROEDER
v.
DEKALB COUNTY, GEORGIA et al.

          MCFADDEN, P. J., BRANCH and BETHEL, JJ.

          McFadden, Presiding Judge.

         Bobby Schroeder, III alleges that the DeKalb County Recorder's Court falsely reported to the Georgia Department of Driver Services that his driver's license should be suspended because he had failed to pay a traffic ticket and had failed to appear in court. This false report, he alleges, led to his being arrested and jailed. He also alleges that the practice of the court communicating false information to the department was routine.

         Schroeder filed this action for damages, asserting claims under state law and 42 USC § 1983 against the county, the chief judge of the recorder's court, the court administrator, and three John Doe defendants. The trial court granted the defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings, and Schroeder filed this appeal.

         We agree with the trial court that Schroeder's ante litem notice was not timely, so he cannot pursue his state law claims against the county and the individual defendants in their official capacities. But we find that the trial court erred in dismissing Schroeder's other claims because the defendants have not shown that they are clearly entitled to judgment. So we affirm in part and reverse in part the trial court's order of dismissal.

1. Allegations in the complaint.
In considering the trial court's decision on a . . . motion for judgment on the pleadings, we apply a de novo review and thus owe no deference to the decision of the court below. Moreover, we must consider all well-pled material allegations on [Schroeder's] complaint as true, with all doubts resolved in [his] favor. We may also consider any exhibits attached to and incorporated into the complaint and the answer, also construing them in the appellant's favor. Nevertheless, . . . a motion for judgment on the pleadings should be granted only if the moving party is clearly entitled to judgment.

Shelnutt v. Mayor & Aldermen of City of Savannah, 333 Ga.App. 446 (776 S.E.2d 650) (2015) (citations and punctuation omitted). Simply put, a defendant is entitled to a "grant of a motion for judgment on the pleadings under OCGA § 9-11-12 (c) . . . only where there is a complete failure to state a cause of action[.]" Hall v. Sencore, Inc., 302 Ga.App. 367 (691 S.E.2d 266) (2010). In this case, the defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings is the equivalent of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim because the defendants did not introduce affidavits, depositions, or interrogatories in support of their motion. Southwest Health & Wellness, LLC v. Work, 282 Ga.App. 619, 623 (2) (639 S.E.2d 570) (2006) (citation and punctuation omitted). For this reason, "[t]he motion to dismiss should not be granted unless the averments in the complaint disclose with certainty that the plaintiff[] would not be entitled to relief under any state of facts which could be proved in support of [his] claim." Id.

         According to Schroeder's complaint, Schroeder received a traffic ticket in DeKalb County in 2013. He alleged that he appeared in recorder's court and was ordered to pay a fine and that he timely paid the fine, but the staff of the recorder's court failed to close his case. Moreover, he asserted, the court staff falsely informed the Georgia Department of Driver Services that Schroeder had failed to appear for his hearing, that he had failed to pay his fine, and that his driving privilege should be suspended. See OCGA § 17-6-11 (b) (Providing in part: "The court in which the charges are lodged shall immediately forward to the Department of Driver Services of this state the driver's license number if the person fails to appear and answer to the charge against him or her. The commissioner of driver services shall, upon receipt of a license number forwarded by the court, suspend the driver's license and driving privilege of the defaulting person until notified by the court that the charge against the person has been finally adjudicated.")

         In his complaint, Schroeder alleged that on August 9, 2013, an officer with the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office arrested Schroeder for driving on a suspended license and took him into custody. Schroeder asserted that he spent significant time in custody before bonding out. He alleged that on September 26, 2013, an officer with the Newton County Sheriff's Office arrested Schroeder for driving on a suspended license and took him into custody. According to Schroeder, at the time of his Rockdale and Newton County arrests, he was on first offender probation; and the Rockdale and Newton County arrests led to the initiation of probation revocation proceedings for which Schroeder was arrested and jailed from November 12, 2013, until December 10, 2013.

         According to Schroeder's complaint, at some point, the recorder's court realized that it had provided the Department of Driver Services with incorrect information. Schroeder alleged in the complaint that the court sent a notice of suspension withdrawal to the department. This led to the dismissal of the Rockdale and Newton County charges and the withdrawal of the probation revocation petition, according to Schroeder. Nonetheless, Schroeder claimed, he lost his job because of these events.

         Schroeder alleged in his complaint that at the relevant time, Nelly Withers was the chief judge of the DeKalb County Recorder's Court and Troy Thompson was the court administrator. According to Schroeder, Judge Withers and Thompson were aware that the recorder's court was understaffed, dysfunctional, and unable to process its cases, and Judge Withers also knew that the court's computer systems produced unreliable data because the systems were flawed or because employees routinely entered data incorrectly, and that employees routinely failed to communicate correct information to the Department of Driver Services.

         Schroeder sent the county ante litem notice of his claims on November 14, 2014. He filed this action for damages alleging that the defendants failed to perform their ministerial duties with due care and that their actions led to Schroeder's unlawful arrests. In addition to his state law claims, Schroeder asserted claims under 42 USC § 1983, alleging that the county, through Judge Withers, the final policymaker, and Thompson, had violated his constitutional rights by maintaining customs and policies that caused his deprivation of liberty. These customs included chronically understaffing and underfunding the recorder's court; failing to adequately train employees; failing to implement an audit system that would have caught mistakes; hiring pursuant to a quota system, which increased the rate of errors in the court's communications with the Department of Driver Services; and failing to adequately discipline and terminate employees. And they knew that these customs and practices repeatedly had led to innocent persons being arrested, yet they failed to correct the problems.

         2. State law claims against the county and the defendants in ...


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