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Martin v. City of College Park

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

June 21, 2017


          DOYLE, C. J., MILLER, P. J, and REESE, J.

          Doyle, Chief Judge.

         In a suit alleging violations of the Georgia Open Meetings Act ("OMA"), [1] Chawanda Martin appeals from the grant of summary judgment to the City of College Park. Martin contends that the trial court erred by ruling that her suit was not filed in accordance with the time limits prescribed in the act at OCGA § 50-14-1 (b) (2) and by granting summary judgment because there was evidence that the City Council made interim employment appointments without a public vote. For the reasons that follow, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand the case.

On appeal from the grant of summary judgment, we construe the evidence most favorably towards the nonmoving party, who is given the benefit of all reasonable doubts and possible inferences. The party opposing summary judgment is not required to produce evidence demanding judgment for it, but is only required to present evidence that raises a genuine issue of material fact. Our review of the grant or denial of a motion for summary judgment is de novo.[2]

         So viewed, the record shows that Martin was hired by the City as a firefighter in September 2008.[3] In 2011, Martin was disciplined for certain alleged misconduct during her job, and on July 30, 2012, she was terminated by then-interim Fire Chief Wade Elmore for additional alleged misconduct occurring in 2012. Pursuant to the City's grievance procedure, Martin appealed her termination to the interim City Manager, Richard Chess, who affirmed the decision. Despite having the opportunity to do so, Martin did not appeal the City Manager's decision to the Mayor or City Council.[4]

         Instead, Martin filed an open records request with the City, seeking information outlining the process by which certain interim officials were appointed by the City. Martin's request focused on the appointments of interim Fire Chief Elmore, interim City Manager Chess, interim City Manager Hugh Austin, and interim Human Resources Director Christa Gilbert. Martin ultimately was able to obtain meeting minutes showing that these interim appointments apparently occurred, but they were not done pursuant to a vote by the City Council at an open meeting.

         On October 2, 2012, Martin sued the City, Chess, Elmore, and City Councilmen Ambrose Clay, Joe Carn, Tracey Wyatt, and Charles Phillips, Sr. The complaint alleged that the interim appointments were made in violation of the OMA, so the interim officials lacked authority to take adverse employment action against Martin. Martin sought reinstatement, expungement of her personnel record, attorney fees and expenses of litigation, a writ of quo warranto, and the imposition of civil penalties against the City Council members. The defendants answered and, following discovery, moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted the motion on the grounds that Martin failed to file her suit within the time prescribed by the OMA, and that Martin had failed to adduce any evidence of unlawful votes. Martin now appeals.[5]

         1. First we must determine if Martin's claims are time-barred. Based on the undisputed evidence, all of Martin's claims are time-barred except as to interim City Manager Chess.

         We begin with the relevant statutory language. OCGA § 50-14-1 (b) provides, in part:

(1) Except as otherwise provided by law, all meetings shall be open to the public. All votes at any meeting shall be taken in public after due notice of the meeting and compliance with the posting and agenda requirements of this chapter.
(2) Any resolution, rule, regulation, ordinance, or other official action of an agency adopted, taken, or made at a meeting which is not open to the public as required by this chapter shall not be binding. Any action contesting a resolution, rule, regulation, ordinance, or other formal action of an agency based on an alleged violation of this provision shall be commenced within 90 days of the date such contested action was taken or, if the meeting was held in a manner not permitted by law, within 90 days from the date the party alleging the violation knew or should have known about the alleged violation so long as such date is not more than six months after the date the contested action was taken.

OCGA § 50-14-3 (b) provides that certain meetings may be held in executive session, i.e., "lawfully closed to the public."[6] Those meetings include:

Meetings when discussing or deliberating upon the appointment, employment, compensation, [or] hiring, . . . of a public officer or employee or interviewing applicants for the position of the executive head of an agency. . . . The vote on any matter covered by this paragraph shall be taken in public and minutes of the meeting as provided in this chapter shall be made available. Meetings by an agency to discuss or take action on the filling of a vacancy in the membership of the agency itself shall at all times be open to the public as provided in this chapter.[7]

         Thus, except when discussing filling a vacancy on the City Council itself, discussion and deliberation regarding hiring decisions may be done in a closed executive session, but voting ...

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